FDA allowing labels that say yogurt can reduce risk

By Staff 9 Min Read

  • Federal regulators are allowing yogurt manufacturers to make limited claims on their packaging that state that yogurt may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • The officials say qualified health claims can be made using specific wording as long as they make clear the claims are based on limited evidence.
  • Experts say the decision could be confusing to consumers, who may misinterpret the labeling to mean yogurt is a definitive way to reduce type 2 diabetes.

Yogurt manufacturers in the United States will be able to claim on their labeling that yogurt may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, following a decision from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FDA officials announced their decision earlier this month to allow manufacturers to make the claims about yogurt as long as the statements meet certain conditions.

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today… that it does not intend to object to the use of certain qualified health claims regarding the consumption of yogurt and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, provided that the qualified health claims are worded so as not to mislead consumers, and that other factors for the use of the claim are met,” agency officials said in a statement.

“A qualified health claim is supported by scientific evidence but does not meet the more rigorous ‘significant scientific agreement’ standard required for an authorized health claim. There is some credible evidence supporting a relationship between yogurt intake and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, but this evidence is limited,” agency officials added.

As part of the FDA’s decision, 2 cups or 3 servings of yogurt per week is considered to be the minimum amount of yogurt that needs to be consumed to meet the qualified health claim.

The decision from the FDA has been met with mixed responses among experts.

“While I can understand why the FDA allowed for this, I’m concerned about how consumers will interpret the claims and how companies will take advantage of it with marketing,” Dr. Marilyn Tan, an endocrinologist at Stanford University in California, told Medical News Today.

“While there may be some limited evidence, which is why the FDA allows for it as a ‘qualified health claim,’ it can be confusing to the average consumer. The average consumer is not aware of different levels of scientific evidence and how to interpret various scientific studies (ie identify if there is bias, if it’s a large enough study, if it’s a well designed study),” Tan added.

The FDA’s decision comes following a petition by food and beverage manufacturer Danone North America.

The petition requested the FDA review the health claims that could be used on labels of all types of yogurt that meet the FDA definition, including low-fat and non-fat yogurt.

While the FDA has approved the use of two specific qualified health claims using certain wording, the agency also expressed concern about the impact of added sugars found in some yogurts.

“The credible scientific evidence found a statistically significant association between reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and yogurt as a food, irrespective of fat or sugar content. As such, the level of added sugars is not an enforcement discretion factor for a qualified health claim regarding the relationship between yogurt and type 2 diabetes at this time. However, we are concerned that the use of a qualified health claim on yogurts that contain a significant amount of added sugars could contribute empty calories to the diet,” agency officials wrote in its response to the filed petition.

“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of total calories and note that added sugars account on average for almost 270 calories, or more than 13 percent of total calories per day in the U.S. population,” agency officials added. “Given that Americans are exceeding recommended limits on added sugars, and some yogurts on the market are high in added sugars, FDA encourages careful consideration of whether to use the claim on products that could contribute significant amounts of added sugars to the diet.”

Experts say that while yogurt does have nutritional benefits, there is not enough evidence to confirm it can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes or to treat the disease.

“There is no definitive evidence that yogurt reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. While yogurt is nutritious because it’s high in protein, depending on the brand one buys, it may also be full of sugar, which can raise blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes,” Tan said.

“It’s also critical to remember that association and causation are not the same,” she added. “Simply because certain individuals in a study consume yogurt regularly and have a lower incidence of diabetes after a certain amount of time does not mean it was the yogurt that reduced the risk. It’s possible that the yogurt replaced other higher sugar foods or that along with the yogurt, other dietary and lifestyle changes were made.”

Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietician at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, told Medical News Today that the FDA’s decision may lead to misinterpretation of the benefits of yogurt and the amount people should eat.

“I don’t agree with this decision, especially with limited scientific evidence as mentioned. I believe it will give yogurt too much of a ‘health halo’ and people will think ‘if a little is good, a lot is better,’” Hunnes said.

“Also, food is not regulated in the same way that drugs are in terms of health claims,” she added. “The evidence doesn’t need to be ‘strong’ to be a claim, but the average person won’t really understand the difference and may give it more weight than it deserves.”

The risk of developing type 2 diabetes can be reduced through lifestyle changes, so experts caution consumers against thinking yogurt will be the sole solution to reducing the risk.

“The mistake that one could make would be to view yogurt as some kind of a pharmacologic solution that by itself is going to render one in better shape without any other particular consideration or effort,” Dr. John Miles, an endocrinologist with the University of Kansas Health System, told Medical News Today.

All of the experts who spoke with Medical News Today agree that reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes is a lot more complicated than just increasing your intake of yogurt and requires modifying your lifestyle and taking medications.

“It is certainly not as simple as eating a few cups of yogurt a week,” Tan said.

“General recommendations include increasing moderate intensity physical activity, reducing sedentary time, reducing refined carbohydrates and processed foods, reducing sugar and carbohydrate intake, maintaining normal range body weight or losing 5 to 10 percent body weight, reducing stress and improving sleep quality, among others,” she said.

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