FDA to allow nut sellers to promote a handful a day as good for the heart

Wednesday, July 16th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The labels on packages of peanuts and certain other nuts can tout that a handful a day just might help your heart, even though that possible benefit isn't yet proven.

It's the first ``qualified'' health claim allowed under a controversial new Food and Drug Administration program that loosens restrictions on how much scientific proof is required before possible health benefits can appear on food packages.

The claim approved Tuesday is for almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts. Their packages now may bear the following line: ``Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.''

That's about a third of a cup, or a handful.

It may sound like surprising advice considering that nuts tend to be high in calories and fat.

Indeed, FDA didn't approve the claim for some of the fattiest nuts, agency nutrition chief Christine Taylor said. Macadamias, for instance, contain too much heart-damaging saturated fat to make the cut.

But the American Heart Association has long said certain nuts contain mostly different types of fat that are heart-healthy _ polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat. The nut industry cited the AHA position and some studies that back nut-rich diets in seeking FDA permission to promote the possible benefit.

Only packages of approved nuts can bear the claim, not fat-packed ice cream with a nut sprinkle, and packages must direct consumers to check the back label for full calorie and fat disclosure, said FDA's Taylor.

Given new understanding of the role of different fats, ``the feeling was as long as they help consumers to understand this contributes quite a bit of calories, they probably should be allowed to make the claim,'' said Taylor.

The decision drew the ire of consumer groups, who say at best, looser health claims will confuse Americans reading wishy-washy advice on food packages that once could bear only scientifically proven statements.

``It would be unfortunate if the claim turned out later to be untrue. No one's going to get their money back,'' said Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

It's also unclear if consumers will understand the disclaimer that nuts' benefits are as yet unproven, Silverglade said.

The nut industry is talking with FDA about more research to hunt proof of nuts' benefits, Taylor said.

Meanwhile, the Almond Board of California suggests one way consumers could make use of the new information: Substitute a handful of nuts instead of a less healthful snack.

Food makers had long lobbied FDA to allow packages to advertise possible health benefits, arguing that people can make sense of evolving or uncertain science.

Faced with court decisions that limit restrictions on product labeling, FDA designed a program that will allow such unproven claims, but with disclaimers designed to discourage the chanciest ones. FDA will rank claims from scientifically proven ``A'' ratings down to ``D'' ratings with almost no evidence.

The new program formally starts in September, but the nut industry had sought its heart-health claim last fall and was allowed in early when FDA decided the benefit is backed only by B-level promising evidence, not A-level proof.

Next on the list to be considered: that eating several servings a week of salmon and certain other fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids is thought to, but not proved to, reduce the risk of heart disease.

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