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POM-boozled: Do health drinks live up to their labels?

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4 Star

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POM-boozled: Do health drinks live up to their labels?

Our Review Summary

As the story points out, these claims are usually based on very thin evidence from manufacturer-funded studies. The story also included some good background information on why food manufacturers are so tempted to stretch the truth when making these claims. The short answer is that the claims help sell products even when they are not believable.

We would like to have seen some more details on the studies POM cites in support of its promotional statements. Apart from this and a few other minor shortcomings, however, the story met our expectations for quality journalism.

 

Why This Matters

The ability to make health claims is a very important marketing tool for food companies. Unfortunately, though, nobody seems to have much authority to regulate these claims or tell us which are based on sound science. The result is that we get companies touting chocolate toddler formula for its health benefits; sugar cereals that purportedly support immunity; and, in the case discussed here, pomegranate juice which apparently can treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. (Hat tip to Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog for pointing us to the preceding examples; there are many others cataloged on her site.)

And these are just the few cases we hear about because the claims may run afoul of the law. There are many other processed food products out there that are unlikely to be very healthful and yet carry labels suggesting otherwise. Consumers can benefit from stories which examine the truth behind the claims.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story says a bottle of POM costs $4, meeting our standard for a satisfactory. It could have specified that the $4 cost refers to 16 oz bottle and not a larger package. There also is no information about how often you’d need to drink the juice to obtain the claimed benefits, so we don’t know if people are supposed to drink a bottle a day or a bottle a week — which would make a big difference on the cost front. (The latter problem may not be the fault of the article, as a quick perusal of the POM website turned up no specific information about serving recommendations from the manufacturer.)
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Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This story explained why the purported health benefits of POM and other drinks are difficult to quantify due to a lack of appropriate research. This gap between claims and proof is highlighted in the story headline and the lead sentence, which points out the absurdity of the claim that POM is “40% as effective as Viagra” — a statistic which has no real meaning or purpose except to make the product sound more appealing.

Still, the expectation is that somewhere in a story there will be some discussion of the absolute risk reductions seen in the primary studies used to substantiate a claim about benefits. This is a problem touched on earlier under the Evidence Evaluation criterion; we’ll dock the points here.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The story perhaps could have mentioned that too much POM juice might contribute to obesity and related health risks such as type 2 diabetes. But we can’t really fault it for not discussing the harms of pomegranate juice, because there really aren’t any direct adverse effects that have been well established. (The same is not necessarily true for antioxidant supplements, which may well be harmful in some cases.) We’ll call this one not applicable.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

For a piece that was all about scrutinizing product health claims, the story didn’t do quite as much digging into the evidence as we would have liked. The research supporting POM isn’t dissected until the last paragraphs of this relatively long article, and the analysis is limited to telling us what was wrong with the studies. — e.g  the claims about arterial plaque were based on a single POM-funded pilot study “that included just 19 people,” and the claims about blood flow came from a study “that included just 45 people and only lasted for three months.”
A bit more detail on the design of these studies would have been appropriate for such an in-depth piece.

With that being said, the story did an excellent job of providing context around the issue of health claims. It noted that manufacturer-funded studies, which are often used to support health claims, are much more likely than independent studies to report favorable results. It also had some great discussion of the “health halo,” which is when companies tout unlikely claims on food packaging to distract people from the real nutritional content of the product.

This one was close, but the major expectation here is that the story include some kind of analysis of the quality of the evidence, which clearly is  provided.  There was also some excellent background information that will give readers a better understanding of why health claims are made and why they should be viewed skeptically. On that basis, we’ll award a satisfactory.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t exaggerate any of the conditions POM supposedly prevents or treats.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The diversity of voices in this story is a strong point. We hear from consumer advocates, industry and independent researchers, as well nutrition experts. One quibble is that comments from the industry-funded researchers are relegated to the very end of the story and they are made to sound like shills for POM. There’s nothing inherently wrong with industry-funded research, and these researchers can’t necessarily be held responsible for how the funding company portrays their findings. Whether pomegranate juice has health benefits is a question worth exploring; the problems arise when companies oversell or distort the results.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The purported health benefits of POM and other health drinks are based on their supposedly high content of antioxidant compounds. People can obtain similarly high levels of antioxidants, at much lower cost, just by eating a healthy diet with lots of regular fruits and vegetables, which are also rich in antioxidants. In fact, it’s probably better to rely on a variety of different foods to make sure you get enough of everything and not too much of any specific compound. The story should have pointed this out.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

We know that one company racked up $91 m in sales in one recent year, giving some indication of how widespread is the use of some of these products.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story notes that POM is hardly the only juice drink making questionable health claims. VitaminWater, kombucha tea, coconut water, and juice drinks made from acai, goji berry, and mangosteen are all mentioned as promoting health claims on their labels.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

This story was clearly not based on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory

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