For years POM Wonderful, the leading marketer of pomegranate juice and extracts, has been making over-the-top health claims in flashy and provocative ads. Not only do POM products help you “cheat death” and stay “forever young,” they can prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction and other ills—or so some of the ads claimed or strongly implied. As we’ve reported, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warned POM about its false and misleading ads, and the FTC ultimately sued the company in 2010. The bitter two-year legal dispute received lots of publicity, largely because POM, unlike most food companies warned about unsubstantiated health claims, didn’t simply change its ads but went on a counter-offensive against the FTC.
In May an administrative law judge issued an initial ruling that went largely against the company, based on federal advertising laws. There is “insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the implied claims” about heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction in the more explicit ads, he said, and issued a “cease and desist” order against them. But you wouldn’t know it from the expensive ad campaign POM subsequently unleashed, which declared victory and tried to spin the ruling its way by selectively quoting (often out of context) from the 335-page decision.
I don’t know if it was bravura or chutzpah, but the way POM spun the ruling reminded me of the way many of its ads overstated the findings from the pomegranate research it funded.
POM got busted because foods aren’t allowed to make medical claims, unless these have been approved by the FDA. That is, companies can’t assert that their products treat, cure or prevent disease. They can, however, make general “health maintenance” claims. An ad or label can say “supports prostate health” but not “helps prevent prostate cancer,” for example. POM’s ads pushed the limits and sometimes crossed this line, the FTC rightfully said.
POM often boasts that it has sponsored more than $35 million worth of research on its juice and extracts to back up its claims. I’ve read many of the studies, and I think the FTC’s analysis of them is on target. Most of them are lab studies, and what happens in a test tube or in mice often does not apply to people. The few human studies have been small and short and have methodological problems. Some of the findings may be intriguing, but they’re preliminary at best and not strong enough to back up POM’s health claims.
The POM company also boasts about its juice’s antioxidant prowess, suggesting that it can fend off chronic diseases—a claim made by marketers of countless other “super-fruits.” None of POM’s studies tested its juice against other nutritious juices. But it doesn’t really matter, since all fruits and vegetables supply antioxidants and other potentially beneficial compounds, generally at a fraction of the cost of POM. You don’t need pomegranates or dietary supplements to get adequate amounts.
If you like pomegranate juice, it’s a healthful option—though like many fruit juices it’s relatively high in sugar and calories. Just don’t buy the hype.