THE ANTIOXIDANT MYTH–Poster Child: “Pom Wonderful”

Anyone watching TV these days is aware of the huge hype surrounding the product Pom Wonderful, which is based upon the flawed concept that pomegranate juice possesses some supernatural quality to make you “crazy healthy” by fighting off those nasty “free radicles” with antioxidants, presenting an unlikely combination of a raucous Samari Warrior with muted culinary pleasure. “POM Wonderful” is a brand of pomegranate juice that is manufactured by a company owned by Linda and Stewart Resnick, California billionaires, who pretty much single-handedly created a multi-million dollar market for pomegranate juice where none existed before. Or, as LA Times reported:

It has long been clear that the most wonderful thing about Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice is the spectacular marketing skill that persuades consumers to fork over their hard-earned cash for a liquid that sells for five to six times the price of, oh, cranberry juice. A daily 8 oz. dose of POM Wonderful juice costs about $780 annually according to a recent Federal Trade Commission case, which we explain below.

In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against the Resnicks, one of their business partners, and two of their companies (which I’ll refer to collectively as “POM”), alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices. POM, according to the FTC complaint, made false and misleading claims that its POM products treat, prevent, and reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) agreed with the FTC and on May 17, 2012, issued a 335-page decision and cease and desist order, ruling POM lacked competent and reliable scientific evidence that drinking 8 ounces of POM Wonderful Juice daily, or taking one POMx pill, or one teaspoon of POMx liquid, treats, prevents or reduces the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, or erectile dysfunction. In the Matter of POM Wonderful, LLC, et al., F.T.C. No. 9344 (May 17, 2012). Nevertheless, outrageous claims about this product persist to this day.

The idea that free radicals are dangerous and could be countered by antioxidants stems originally from test-tube experiments that have not extended to living organisms. Although many fruits and vegetables possess antioxidant properties, their benefits are likely due to other features (such as potassium content) exerted by the plants themselves. This idea is supported by the fact that antioxidant supplements such as vitamins C and E, carotenes, lycopene, and selenium have not been shown in themselves to exhibit any salutary properties Thus scientists are beginning to debunk myths surrounding antioxidant pills, juicing, and other dietary fads.

Researchers analyzed nutrition studies in a new review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which begins to cut through the confusion about the best dietary patterns to reduce heart disease. The review concludes that—with or without antioxidant properties—current evidence strongly supports eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts in moderation. Heart–healthy diets may also include liberal amounts of fish and some chicken, with lesser quantities of lean meat and low–fat and nonfat dairy products, and liquid vegetable oils.
The review examined several dietary patterns as well as “hypes and controversies” surrounding nutrition to provide information to aid both physicians and the population in considering which dietary habits to adopt.
They concluded that there is a growing consensus that a predominantly plant–based diet that emphasizes green, leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit were the best improvements thus far seen in heart health,

Other nutrition topics covered in the review include:

  • Eggs and cholesterol. Although a government report issued in 2015 dropped specific recommendations about upper limits for cholesterol consumption, the review concluded that it remains prudent to advise patients to significantly limit intake of dietary cholesterol in the form of eggs or any high cholesterol foods to “as little as possible.”
  • Vegetable oils. Coconut oil and palm oil should be discouraged due to limited data supporting routine use. The most heart–healthy oil is olive oil, though perhaps in moderation as it is still higher calorie, research suggests.
  • Berries of various types. Fruits and vegetables are the healthiest and most beneficial means to reduce heart disease risk, although, as noted, these benefits probably do not result from antioxidant activity. There is no compelling evidence that adding high–dose antioxidant dietary supplements benefits heart health.
  • Nuts. Nuts can be part of a heart–healthy diet. But beware of consuming too many, because nuts are high in calories.
  • Juicing. While the fruits and vegetables contained in juices are heart–healthy, the process of juicing concentrates calories, which makes it is much easier to ingest too many. Eating whole fruits and vegetables is preferred, with juicing primarily reserved for situations when daily intake of vegetables and fruits is inadequate. If you do juice, avoid adding extra sugar or honey, to minimize calories.
  • Gluten. People who have celiac disease or other gluten sensitivity must avoid gluten—wheat, barley and rye. For patients who don’t have any gluten sensitivities, many of the claims for health benefits of a gluten–free diet are unsubstantiated, the researchers conclude.
  • The authors also addressed why there can be confusion surrounding nutrition studies, because many of these studies are funded and/or influenced by the food industry and may have some bias.

Furthermore, it’s very hard to separate the effects of specific nutrients in a food. For example, an apple contains many components including proteins, vitamins and fiber. Also, many people who eat a healthy diet also follow other healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as regular physical activity, getting enough sleep, and not smoking, and it can be hard to pinpoint the diet’s effect separate from these other behaviors. Confounding matters even more, some nutrition studies tend to be based on surveys that rely on people’s memories of what they ate, which isn’t always reliable.
The founder of modern medicine, Hippocrates, said, ‘Let food be thy medicine.” If we can get everyone to understand the value of nutrition in prevention—in comparison to treatment—we can have a profound impact on reducing heart disease, and it is certainly far more cost–effective—especially if one avoids Pom Wonderful!

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