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Is it good for you? Labels will soon tell

October 13, 2003|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

The benefits may not have been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, but packages of nuts will soon include health claims nevertheless.

The Food and Drug Administration recently eased its restrictions on allowing manufacturers to make such claims on their product labels. Previously, food makers needed to have "significant scientific agreement" to carry a health claim on food labels and in advertising. For example, high-fiber foods, such as certain cereals, could have a label stating that diets high in fiber can reduce the risk of some types of cancer -- which scientists almost universally believe to be true.

Now foods can carry a health claim with a corresponding grade (A, B, C or D) that reflects the quality of the scientific evidence behind the claim, even if that evidence isn't conclusive. A product claim would receive an A grade if the FDA believes there is "significant agreement" backing it up. A product claim would receive a D grade if the agency believes there is "little scientific evidence" supporting it.

The claims -- with their accompanying grades -- can be placed on labels and in advertising.

Nuts are the first food to apply for and receive permission to run a health claim under the new program. Manufacturers of almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts can run a level B health claim (the evidence is moderate but not conclusive) as long as the nuts are not packaged in fatty foods, like ice cream. The B grade reflects studies that show nuts appear to lower cholesterol, but too few studies have been done to show with certainty that nuts can reduce the risk of certain diseases.

In contrast, some calcium-rich foods may receive an A grade because studies have shown with certainty that calcium intake helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

The new FDA program has drawn praise from some health experts, who say it will help consumers identify healthy foods. Others, however, have criticized the program, saying it will mislead shoppers. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group, has filed suit against the FDA challenging the new program.

FDA officials say the system will give consumers more nutrition information that is easier to understand.

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Which nuts make the grade

Six types of nuts can now carry a claim attesting to their health benefits. These nuts received a B level health claim, which means the scientific evidence supporting the claim is moderate but not conclusive. Not all nuts qualified for the FDA's health claim, however. Some are too high in saturated fat.

Nuts that qualified for a B health claim

*--* Type Calories Total fat Saturated fat (per ounce) (grams per ounce) (grams per ounce)

Almonds 170 14.5 1.5 Hazelnuts 160 18.0 1.0 Peanuts 160 13.5 2.0 Pecans 190 19.0 2.0 Pistachios 160 14.0 2.0 Walnuts 180 18.0 2.0

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Nuts that cannot include a health claim

*--* Type Calories Total fat Saturated fat (per ounce) (grams per ounce) (grams per ounce) Brazil nuts 190 19.0 5.0 Cashews 160 13.0 2.5 Macadamias 200 20.0 2.5

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Source: Times reports

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