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Williams: FDA finally realizes that yogurt is healthful


To millions of Americans who gulp down daily spoonfuls of yogurt, the dairy product’s health benefits are a no-brainer. Until now, though, yogurt manufacturers have been unable to make even basic claims about the healthfulness of their products.

On March 1, the Food and Drug Administration finally announced that food makers can make a “qualified” (i.e., limited) claim that regularly eating yogurt can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes. It took the agency five years to arrive at a conclusion that has been common sense for decades.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the FDA has flubbed basic health messaging.

The agency needs to do better and give consumers the information they need to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s not rocket science that yogurt is a healthful food (in moderation) and may prevent chronic health issues. As University of Toronto nutritional scientist Thomas Wolever noted in 2017, “High yogurt intake is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.”

A team of Japanese scientists analyzing the glucose metabolism of daily yogurt eaters in the journal Nutrients came to a similar conclusion the following year. A roundup of five randomized clinical trials in the United States, France, Spain, Iran and Canada found that yogurt keeps glucose levels at bay.

It’s become common knowledge that yogurt is a healthful food. Still, consumers have been left to browse peer-reviewed academic journals and health magazine advice columns for more information.

In 2018, Danone North America petitioned the FDA to end this madness and allow for marketing that yogurt may reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes. The company — which manufactures major yogurt brands including Dannon, Activia, Wallaby Organic and Silk — submitted a thoroughly researched, 100-plus page petition backing up this qualified claim. The risk-averse FDA hemmed and hawed, insisting on more evidence.

The FDA finally got what it was looking for more than five years after Danone’s petition. Given the studies and meta-analyses that had already been published at the time of the petition, the FDA could have approved the messaging and reserved the right to change its mind if new, contradictory evidence came to light.

Consumers would have been in a better place to make informed decisions about their health. Too often, regulators value near-absolute certainty over pragmatism and flexibility.

This was not the FDA’s first foray into botched health messaging. In 2015, the agency sent a warning letter to the snack manufacturer KIND to cease marketing its products as healthful.

The agency argued that KIND’s Fruit & Nut and “Plus” Dark Chocolate bars are too high in saturated fat to be considered “healthy.” The FDA did not dispute

KIND’s claims that its products are a significant source of fiber, protein and antioxidants, but neglected a holistic view to focus solely on fat content.

In 2016, the FDA partially reversed course and allowed KIND to market its products as “healthy and tasty,” but only in the context of its “corporate philosophy” rather than any specific claim about their healthfulness.

These perplexing caveats only confuse consumers rather than provide clarity on health claims.

Instead of endlessly hedging over health claims, the FDA should green-light messaging if a company can show basic, peer-reviewed evidence backing up its claims. The FDA can reverse course later, but only after firm evidence shows no or negative health benefits. Flexibility rather than fear is critical to helping consumers make informed choices about the foods they buy.

It is time for the FDA to end the culture of bad science.

David Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

yogurt, FDA