TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) _ Olivene Robbins swears a daily glass of concentrated tart cherry juice cured her painful gout. ``It's almost like a miracle to me,'' says the 69-year-old resident of Hickory, N.C.
Customers like Robbins are now caught in the middle of a fight between federal health officials and the cherry industry.
The industry is marketing cherries as health food, trumpeting research showing they contain helpful antioxidants, along with testimonials from buyers like Robbins. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration has ordered 29 companies to stop making unproven claims that their cherry products treat or prevent disease.
``We have the government telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture funding some of these fruit studies, and now we have another arm of the federal government that says you can't use the research,'' said Bob Underwood, whose Traverse City company sells capsules containing cherry and blueberry paste.
Since receiving FDA letters last fall, some cherry product producers have removed _ or at least reworded _ their health benefit statements. But others still make the connection, and an industry group is continuing a promotional campaign telling consumers that cherries are good for them.
``We've always tried to report the science, to stick with the facts, to report things as they are and not exaggerate,'' said Jane DePriest, marketing director for the Lansing-based Cherry Marketing Institute.
Some producers complain the government is picking on a small industry whose products are harmless.
``Nobody ever claimed they had adverse side effects from eating cherries, which is more than you can say for a lot of drugs,'' said Steve de Tar, president of Brownwood Acres Foods in Eastport, where Robbins orders her juice concentrate.
His business, once a roadside farm market in northern Michigan orchard country, boomed so dramatically after it started Internet juice sales that it made Inc. magazine's 2004 list of the nation's 500 fastest growing privately held companies.
The cherry industry isn't alone on the antioxidant bandwagon. Foods as varied as blueberries, green tea and chocolate have been touted as antioxidant-rich. Antioxidants are believed to neutralize free radicals _ compounds that damage cells in the body and are implicated in disorders such as cancers and Alzheimer's disease.
The FDA told the 29 companies that by claiming their products could prevent, treat or cure disease, they were in effect calling them drugs, which are covered by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. New drugs require FDA approval and testing to confirm safety and effectiveness.
``If somebody is using a product that is unproven for health benefits, they may be forgoing other treatments that they would need,'' said Jennifer Thomas, consumer safety officer with the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. ``We're concerned that consumers not get the wrong message and use products that may not have the benefits they believe they would have.''
The FDA cited one vendor's Web site that proclaimed ``Breakthrough News: Cherries Prevent Cancer!''
Cherries, that ad said, ``are packed with perillyl alcohol _ a natural chemical that not only flushes cancer-causing substances out of the body, but also helps stunt the growth of cancerous cells.'' It also said cherries contain anthocyanins, ``anti-inflammatory pain relievers 10 times stronger than aspirin or ibuprofen.''
The FDA could seek a court order or seize their products to enforce its order to stop the claims, Thomas said.
Studies funded partly by the industry and the USDA detected antioxidants in cherries, including anthocyanins, the compounds responsible for a fruit's color. University of Iowa scientists documented the presence of perillyl alcohol.
Russel J. Reiter, who found that cherries have high levels of melatonin, an antioxidant believed to improve sleep patterns, thinks it's fair to tell consumers that cherries contain antioxidants. But he says explicitly linking any food to a specific disease is going too far without clinical proof.
``No one has given cherry products to a group of individuals with gout in a controlled, clinical study and showed it can be used to treat or cure gout,'' said Reiter, of the University of Texas Health Science Center.
Robbins insists she doesn't need clinical trials.
She says that for two years her gout was so painful she could hardly wear shoes. It got better after she began eating cherries daily and cleared up almost overnight when she switched to concentrated juice, she says.
``I don't care what the FDA says,'' Robbins said. ``They want you to pop a bunch of pills and I'm not a pill taker.''