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Pomegranate and seeds. (thinkstock)
Pomegranate and seeds. (thinkstock)

Superfruit: no magic bullet Add to ...

A muscular snake slithers over a naked Eve. Her eyes lock with the camera. Then a voiceover suggests that Adam was seduced not by an apple but an antioxidant-rich pomegranate, whose potency is "backed by modern science."

The makers of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice launched the provocative ad one week after U.S. federal regulator filed complaints against the company, arguing that POM made unsubstantiated claims that its products ward off cancer and act as a natural Viagra. (The company has said it will fight the lawsuit.)

Blatant health claims are missing from the new Eve ad. Instead, POM implies the voluptuous fruit is an aphrodisiac.

The notion that a "superfruit" can have curative powers has taken hold of popular imagination. On TV and online, acai berries from the Amazon are promoted for weight loss. Himalayan goji berries are touted for immune-boosting properties. In just the past few weeks, media outlets reported on studies that suggest blueberries prevent Type 2 diabetes, beetroot juice improves athletic performance and pomegranate juice reduces blood pressure.

The scientific community isn't convinced. According to university medical researchers, the majority of studies that show a direct link between a health benefit and a specific fruit do not meet the standards of scientific research, and many are funded by food and beverage companies. Experts warn that specific health claims made by marketers of "superfruit" may be as myth-based as pomegranate-bestowing goddess Aphrodite, who also appears in the POM campaign.

Exotic fruit, including goji, noni, acai and pomegranate, are indeed rich sources of antioxidants believed to promote good health, according to David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.

But Dr. Katz says he doubts expensive products made from these fruit offer substantial benefits over garden-variety sources, such as concord grapes. "I'm not at all sure whether you're getting bang for your buck."

Moreover, ad campaigns for superfruit may send a message of "nutritional absolution," Dr. Katz says: "Dietary sin is washed away with pomegranate juice." If consumers get the impression that drinking a 300-calorie bottle of pomegranate juice daily will counteract the effects of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, he adds, "that's overtly harmful."

The lawsuit against POM is the latest in a series of federal crackdowns on food and beverage companies that made unauthorized health claims, including Diamond Foods, which suggested its walnuts could protect against stroke and help treat depression.

In the United States, legislation passed in 1993 requires companies to have disease-prevention claims approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Companies such as POM flourished under the George W. Bush administration, which was lax in enforcing the law, according to Bruce Silverglade, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. Under U.S. President Barack Obama, however, "the agency is back on the consumer watchdog beat," he says.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission singled out POM for making health claims based on studies that lacked a control group, didn't account for the placebo effect and disregarded other basic tenets of science, Mr. Silverglade says.

Canada has different rules governing nutritional health claims, but many Canadian consumers are still exposed to U.S. marketing messages through magazines and other media outlets.

News that a superfruit cures disease is usually based on a study in which antioxidants destroyed malignant cells in a test tube, says Bruce Holub, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph. Though that sounds promising, in-vitro experiments have "little or potentially no relevancy to human health."

Studies done in humans may be just as inconclusive, says Dr. Holub, whose lab was among the first to measure the effects of eating blueberries on antioxidant levels in the blood. In the case of pomegranates, for example, human studies do show improvements in blood flow and widening of blood vessels a few hours after pomegranate juice is consumed, he says, but "then they dissipate." Dr. Holub recommends that consumers rely on evidence-based health research at PubMed.com, and eat berries of various colours, which are associated with different antioxidants.

But the public health message to eat a variety of plant-based foods may not satisfy consumer demand for a quick fix, says John Turtle, an associate professor of psychology at Ryerson University.

It's human nature to buy into a solution that's simpler than obeying a doctor's orders to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, he says.

Many people are drawn by the anti-establishment allure of a superfood that has been ignored by mainstream medicine, he adds. The conspiracy theory is that, because corporations can't make a buck on natural foods, "pharmaceutical companies are trying to suppress it."

Instead of facing mundane reality, Dr. Turtle says, consumers would rather be seduced by the promise of the latest superfruit. No wonder companies keep banking on what he calls "a never-ending hope that this is the one."

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