Junkfood Science: Super juices

July 28, 2008

Super juices

While the courts are not the venue to decide science, a case in the news can raise awareness of a widespread consumer fraud. One of the hottest functional food fads is super antioxidants juices. The more exotic and intensely colored the juices, and the higher their ORAC counts, the healthier they’re claimed to be. Pomegranate juice is currently the marketing heavyweight. There are some 950 products being sold in the United States, all claiming to contain pomegranates. The problem is, “there aren’t enough pomegranate groves on the planet to supply the products in the marketplace,” said Lynda Resnick, owner of POM Wonderful, LLC.

Consumers are being scammed and aren’t always getting what they think they’re buying.

To say that the super juice marketplace is competitive is an understatement. One of the largest pomegranate companies is POM Wonderful, which reported sales of $165 million last year of its California pomegranate products. According to U.S. Federal Court documents, the company says it was the first to market pomegranate products in the U.S. and has invested millions of dollars to fund research on pomegranate polyphenols as antioxidants that neutralize free radicals, to promote their promise for cardiovascular health and to inhibit more than a 100 different cancers and chronic diseases of aging, including Alzheimers, dementia and diabetes.

It filed a lawsuit against one of its competitors, Purely Juice, Inc., for selling a product labeled as 100% pomegranate juice that it says wasn’t pure juice. According to Ad Week, POM Wonderful wasn’t pleased with the fact this competitor was undercutting them in price while also using their own research on pomegranates in their marketing.

The court documents describe how POM Wonderful had Krueger Food Laboratories test a Purely Juice sample, which reported on February 21, 2007, that the sample “contains little or no pomegranate juice. The solids consist primarily of corn syrup and nonpomegranate fruit juice.” Food Research then tested samples being sold at three different locations in California and Virginia and sent them to seven independent laboratories. The consensus of the labs was that the juice wasn’t 100% pomegranate juice, but contained added sugars and other juices. The court ruled in favor of POM Wonderful and has ordered Purely Juice to pay $1.5 million in damages.

But the real story for consumers isn’t in this court battle. The helpful information for the public comes first in an important fact pointed out in the 27 pages of court documents — one widely known in the food industry, but few consumers have ever heard. The second and most important information wasn’t found in the court documents at all.

Buyer beware

As the court documents noted, companies buy juice concentrates and extracts from around the world which they reconstitute, but:

It is widely known that the market for foreign pomegranate juice concentrate was experiencing a problem with adulteration. In 2006, it was widely known in the super premium juice industry that there were serious issues of adulteration with pomegranate juice concentrate originating from outside of the United States.

So, even when you think those exotic juices you’re buying are 100% juice as the label says, what you’re actually getting may not be what you think. And these juices aren’t cheap, either, typically around $4 for a small bottle.

More importantly, you’re most likely to not be getting those wondrous health benefits being claimed. Everywhere we turn, another news story is touting near magical abilities of exotic berry and fruit juices — their antioxidants are purported to guard against free radicals and protect against age-related diseases, cancers, heart disease, and dementia; reduce blood pressure, reduce inflammation, help erectile dysfunction, and prevent muscle injuries.

Like that widely circulated story picked up by CBS News, many recent stories have originated from Health Magazine, owned by Time Inc., which supplies content to its partners who include the online health encyclopedia, Healthwise, the daily health news source for editors and writers, HealthDay, and online health and wellness symptom checker, Healthline. This story reported of a new University of California study ranking pomegranate juice as the best anti-oxidant juice. What readers weren’t told is that this story came from a press release from POM Wonderful, which funded the study, and was only measuring the polyphenol content and free radical capacity of various juices in the laboratory. It was not a randomized clinical trial evaluating any actual health benefits in people. As the POM Pomegranate press release notes, it has spent $23 million over the past decade to publish ten studies on the benefits of its pomegranate juice.

What the media isn’t reporting is the science behind these super foods and juices, including what every sound randomized controlled clinical trial of antioxidant vitamins conducted since 1945 has shown. We all want to believe there are special foods and supplements that can protect against aging and chronic diseases, and there are plenty eager to sell us on that belief. But that won’t make the promises credible.

The FDA cannot go after each and every company marketing pomegranates and super juices and superfoods, and making fraudulent health claims that have no clinical trial substantiation. But for years, it has been issuing warning letters to companies selling these products and consumers need only to “step and repeat” these warnings when the next commercial and health story comes along.

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