FTC Fights POM Juice Over Scientific Claims

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FTV-vs-POM
POM's claims of science proving its benefits has drawn the ire of the FTC.

The US Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint against POM Wonderful, makers of the popular pomegranate juice and a wide variety of pomegranate foods and supplements. The complaint alleges that the company has made unreasonable claims that scientific research proves the POM juice can help prevent heart disease, erectile dysfunction, and prostate cancer. POM has released a response aggressively defending the scientific basis of their claims and their rights to share scientific results with the public. To date POM has spent more than $34 million dollars funding scientific inquiries into the benefits and effects of pomegranates, with more than 55 studies (including 19 clinical studies) already completed. It’s a battle over who can speak for science and neither side is pulling any punches.

Whether or not they are to be believed, it’s clear that POM makes many claims as to the potency of their goods. Their primary website is loaded with ambiguously positive statements like “POM Wonderful 100% Pure Pomegranate Juice is health in a bottle.” They also have a related site dedicated solely to their scientific research, which makes more verifiable statements like “In a pilot study of 19 subjects with carotid artery stenosis (plaque buildup), patients who consumed 8 ounces of Wonderful variety 100% pomegranate juice daily for a one-year period experienced a 30% reduction in intima-media thickness of the carotid artery vs. a 9% increase for the placebo group.” Of course, their commercials take the health theme to a whole other level of innuendo:

In particular, the FTC seems to have problems with statements on POM packaging and advertisements. Their complaint specifically mentions the following claims by POM:

  • Clinical studies prove that POM Juice and POMx prevent, reduce the risk of, and treat heart disease, including by decreasing arterial plaque, lowering blood pressure, and improving blood flow to the heart;
  • Clinical studies prove that POM Juice and POMx prevent, reduce the risk of, and treat prostate cancer, including by prolonging prostate-specific antigen doubling time;
  • Clinical studies prove that POM Juice prevents, reduces the risk of, and treats, erectile dysfunction.

According to the FTC it is problematic to present any of these claims to the public as widely accepted scientific research. From the FTC site:

The FTC complaint alleges that POM Wonderful’s heart disease claims are false and unsubstantiated because many of the scientific studies conducted by POM Wonderful did not show heart disease benefit from use of its products. It alleges that the prostate cancer claims are false and unsubstantiated because, among other reasons, the study POM Wonderful relied on was neither “blinded” nor controlled. Finally, it alleges that the erectile dysfunction claims are false and unsubstantiated because the study on which the company relied did not show that POM Juice was any more effective than a placebo.

You can review these studies for yourself as POM’s research site has made each fully available in PDF format. Generally I would agree with the FTC’s critiques, and would add that many of the studies are based on fairly small sample sizes and represent preliminary stages of testing. Several of the prostate studies focus on prostate specific antigen (PSA) which, while linked to prostate cancer, is not the same as studying cancer malignancy rates or mortality. And in general, I’m always suspicious of research that supports the claims made by the group financing the research.

Many of the studies, however, do seem to suggest that pomegranate juice is pretty healthy. Given enough time, I wouldn’t be surprised if POM could verify some portion of the claims it has made. Probably not all of them, but enough to encourage customers to drink their products.

So the question becomes not “are POM’s claims completely scientifically accurate?” but rather “how much scientific evidence do you need before you can start making claims in your advertising?” The FTC would clearly like to set the bar very high, perhaps unreasonably so. POM is much more in favor of the open dissemination of information, “POM believes very strongly in its First Amendment rights to communicate the promising results of our extensive scientific research program on Wonderful variety pomegranates.”

The battle may come down to whether or not making health claims puts your product in the same realm of regulation as pharmaceutical drugs. POM is quick to portray their products as healthy foods. Foods, of course, being natural alternatives to the pharm industry. From their site:

Pomegranates are food – highly nutritious produce, designed by nature itself. Because POM products may in fact offer the promise of better health, we believe it is important to share the research results as they become available.

This is especially true since our products do not carry the risks associated with pharmaceutical drugs. It’s a shame that the government is unable to understand this fundamental distinction, and instead is wasting taxpayer resources to persecute the pomegranate.

I’m all for healthy foods, and I feel some sympathy for POM. They have a food product they believe is healthy, and they’ve gone to great lengths to find scientific basis for that belief. I think they have a right to share that faith with their customers. In fact, in comparison to all the outright awful industrial products that are passed off as food, pomegranate juice is probably a miracle substance. POM makes the same distinction on its site:

Unfortunately, there are far too many packaged food and beverage products that are fundamentally unhealthy (e.g., loaded with added sugars and refined carbohydrates, saturated/trans fats, etc.), but that try to pass themselves off as somehow “good for you.” In a country where obesity and its associated diseases are growing at an alarming pace, these practices must stop.

On the other hand, products that are inherently healthy (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.) and that have been studied extensively by modern science, need a common-sense process by which the research can be shared.

Unfortunately, the FDA and FTC have thrown POM into the category of inherently unhealthy foods dressed up as something much better. We know, however, that we belong to the other category, as an inherently healthy product whose scientific research should be made available for the public to evaluate on its own merits

Okay, POM, we get it. You’re one of the ‘good guys’.

Yet the FTC is right to try to set high standards in what we can pass off as ‘scientifically verified’. They suggest in their complaint that the Food and Drug Administration should have to approve any future claims that POM wishes to publish on their products. That may or may not work with this single company, but if applied to the health food industry as a whole it would have serious ramifications.

Regulating the claims for all health foods would probably mean the denial of most, if not all, of them. There are dozens of major companies, and thousands (millions?) of food products that make health claims based on ‘scientific research’. Look hard enough, and I’m sure you’ll find flaws in each of the studies associated with these claims. The same is probably true for all health research. It takes years and years of study to establish the benefits of a supplement. For goodness sakes, we haven’t even figured out if Vitamin D or Fish Oil are really good for you.

POM has probably been overzealous in their claims of scientific support, but that’s a problem with the health food industry as a whole. Whether or not the FTC gets the company to curtail their advertisements, as consumers we need to realize that no single product is going to act as a panacea for our health. We need to focus on changing our diets as a whole, and improving our lifestyles in general, to achieve longer and happier lives. Drink the juice or don’t drink the juice, it’s up to you. Just don’t count on the juice. Health doesn’t come in a bottle.

[image and video credit: POM Wonderful]
[sources: POM Wonderful, Wonderful Pomegranate Research, FTC]