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Yep, says the dairy industry whose ads promise a “trimmer tummy” by drinking milk. Other ads on Dr. Phil, Will & Grace and in People and other magazines have positioned milk, cheese and yogurt as weapons in the war on obesity. But the multimillion-dollar campaign could soon face health problems of its own.
In April, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) petitioned the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to stop the campaign, calling it “false and misleading.” In May, the nutrition advocacy group asked the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent dairy-food packages from claiming any link between weight loss and dairy consumption. And in June, PCRM sued various food companies and the National Dairy Council (NDC), asking the court to find that the claims are false and that people have been harmed by them.
What’s at issue is the validity of the claims, especially those based on studies by the University of Tennessee’s Michael Zemel, PhD, whose research has been funded by the NDC to the tune of $1.68 million since 1998. Zemel’s studies purportedly show that people on low-calorie diets not only lose weight if they consume dairy products but lose weight more rapidly, an effect that he attributes to dietary calcium.
But these studies, PCRM counters, are too small to matter and rely on “caloric restriction to show a weight loss. Any food could be substituted for dairy products in this scenario—french fries, for example.”
Marion Nestle, PhD, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, agrees, citing a study in the June 2005 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showing no weight loss at all associated with dairy products. “Weight is about calories, and it doesn’t really matter where they come from,” Nestle tells VT. “If eating dairy foods helps people cut calories, people will lose weight. But if they eat dairy foods on top of everything else they’re eating, they’ll gain weight.”
Nonsense, NDC spokesperson Stephanie Smith, RD, tells VT. “The scientific support for the dairy weight-loss claim is much broader than PCRM indicates,” Smith says, citing a new study—also by Zemel. “This campaign will continue as long as obesity is a concern.”
That’s up to the courts and the government. However, PCRM’s fear is that the FTC and the FDA will say they can’t do anything because the dairy campaign—much like “Pork, the Other White Meat” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”—is approved by the US Department of Agriculture, under little-known programs to promote pork, beef and milk. “But our hope is that they stop these claims immediately,” says Mindy Kursban, PCRM’s vice president and chief legal counsel.