Berry pies

Pies are filled with Oregon berries. Scientists and food industry representatives convened in Portland, Ore., on May 7-9 for the Berry Health Benefits Symposium.

PORTLAND — Research into the health benefits of berries is intended to give sales a shot in the arm, but experts say food companies should avoid overzealous claims.

Not only can exaggerated claims run afoul of labeling regulations, but they can also strain the credulity of skeptical shoppers, according to experts at the recent Berry Health Benefits Symposium in Portland, Ore.

“You need to be really careful in your language use,” said Leslie Redmond, a nutrition professor at the University of Alaska.

Recent controversies over deceptive advertising and industry-funded research by food companies have been sparking concerns about bias, she said.

Consumers are less likely to believe that scientists considered the full range of evidence when studies are industry-funded, she said. They’re also less trusting of industry-funded studies than those conducted by the government, universities and nonprofits, Redmond said.

There’s a lot of “opportunity for misinterpretation” of nutrition research that can negatively affect consumer trust, so marketers should beware of blurring the line between causation and correlation, she said.

For example, there’s a distinction between a food being associated with heart health versus actually preventing or curing heart disease.

Though regulations vary across the world, advertising rules often stress the need for an adequate body of evidence for certain claims, said Carolyn Lister, principal scientist at the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research.

For example, stating that a food will “pump up” the immune system may overstep regulations while saying that it will “support” the immune system’s function would be allowable, she said.

“Developing new claims isn’t easy and requires high-quality evidence and support,” Lister said.

Transparency about research dollars — whether they come from industry or the government — can help resolve concerns about “selling” science, said Chris Krueger, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin and the CEO of a food science company.

Researchers must effectively “market” themselves to win money for research, but some funding requirements may be deal-breakers, such as prohibitions against publishing in peer-reviewed journals, he said.

Academia is motivated by an interest in discovery while the industry must work for the interests of shareholders, Krueger said. “Often there’s a conflict in how this is approached.”

The Berry Health Benefits Symposium, held May 7-9, convenes scientists and industry representatives every two years for an overview of new developments in berry research, said Darcy Kochis, marketing director for the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission.

“We’ve come together with all the berry crops to present the research into berries and health in one place at one time,” she said, adding that the Portland event attracted 145 participants.

Studies of berry health benefits often delve deeply into complexity, so the symposium allows for a broader perspective on such research, she said.

“We need to take that research and make it usable for promotion” that compels more berry consumption, Kochis said. “We hope healthy benefits are a backbone for that decision-making process.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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