Whole Foods Market Inc. is reviewing health claims about DHA, in an action that may determine whether the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods will continue carrying some products touting the supplement’s benefits.
The company’s quality standards team is examining the scientific evidence behind claims about DHA, said Kate Lowery, a spokeswoman for the Austin, Texas-based retailer.
“We’re reviewing the claims and supporting research.” Lowery said in an interview. “We try to carefully evaluate what’s on our shelves.”
Whole Foods outlets currently sell milk, eggs and tablets containing DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid formally known as docosahexaenoic acid, that is often taken as a fish-oil-based dietary supplement.
The review of DHA claims coincides with Dean Foods Co.’s confirmation that it is considering the removal of a scientific citation from a DHA-enriched version of its Horizon milk brand. Those cartons include a reference to a study by Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Penn State University.
The packaging for Horizon organic milk fortified with the DHA features a picture of a young girl to illustrate the heart, eye and brain benefits of the additive, and cites a paper by Kris-Etherton about sources of DHA in the American diet.
Kris-Etherton, who has served on nutrition panels for the U.S. Department of Agriculture that set standards for organic labeling, says her research didn’t identify an ideal intake level for the supplement. She joined with the publisher of the work, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, to ask that the citation be removed.
The reference to the paper “will likely be removed” when packaging is changed in 2013, said Sara Loveday, a Dallas-based spokeswoman for WhiteWave Foods Co., a unit of Dean that controls the Horizon brand. Dean Foods stands behind the claims on its packaging, and there is a preponderance of evidence that supports them, she said in an e-mail.
“We have no intention of removing the claim we’ve made” that many Americans don’t get the recommended amount of DHA, and the additive plays a role in brain health, eye function and heart health, Loveday said. “Packaging changes require significant lead time.”
Lowery said Whole Foods was “not at this point” considering the removal of Horizon DHA-enriched milk. “In the normal course of business, we are continuously evaluating products, ingredients and label claims based on new research and information,” she said.
Dean last year toned down its advertising about claims made about the brain-supporting attributes of DHA, normally found in oily fish, in response to a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC cannot comment on the Whole Foods review, or any particular company’s activities, Mary Engle, director of the agency’s advertising practices division, said in an e-mail.
“Any DHA claims, and more generally any health claims, need to be backed by competent and reliable scientific evidence,” Engle said.
The Horizon brand accounts for about 40 percent of the organic milk market, according to Amit Sharma, an analyst who covers Dean for BMO Capital Markets in New York.
Organic milk and cream sales in the U.S. totaled $2.4 billion in 2011, up 13 percent from the previous year, according to the Brattleboro, Vermont-based Organic Trade Association, the main organic producers’ trade group.
The Food and Drug Administration says that adding foods with DHA and another fatty acid, known as EPA, to a diet may reduce the risk of heart disease. The agency hasn’t authorized specific health claims on DHA’s effects on brain and eye health, and some scientists say studies are inconclusive.
Assertions about the health benefits of food are increasingly part of marketing campaigns to woo customers. Competition has also intensified in the organic food market, which has grown almost fourfold since 2002, to $29.2 billion in sales in 2011.
Some food marketing campaigns have triggered class-action lawsuits and settlements of as much as $35 million over allegations companies are making bogus health promises in order to generate profits.
The Dannon Co., a U.S. unit of the world’s biggest yogurt maker Danone SA, agreed to pay the $35 million in 2009 over claims it misled consumers because it didn’t have conclusive evidence to market its Activia and DanActive yogurts as preventing illness. The company says it stands by its advertising. PepsiCo Inc.’s Quaker Oats and Kraft Foods Inc. are facing lawsuits for selling food as wholesome even though they contain artery-clogging trans fats.
Any decision by Whole Foods not to carry products with certain DHA claims will empower plaintiffs’ lawyers who are bringing cases about the supplement, said Stephen Gardner, litigation director at the Washington-based consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“They hold people to higher standards for a lot of their products,” Gardner said. “If their conclusion is they think it’s ineffective or there’s no basis, it’ll have an impact because the plaintiff’s lawyers will want to use it.”
Other retailers may follow Whole Foods if the organic retailer opts not to sell products with DHA claims, he said.
Dean faces at least five class-action lawsuits filed by consumers alleging that the statement that DHA “supports brain health” is false.
“We plan to aggressively defend ourselves around the labeling and marketing of our Horizon DHA Omega-3 enhanced milk products,” Loveday said in an e-mail. “We believe these lawyer-driven cases have no merit.”
DHA has been the subject of other litigation. Mead Johnson & Company LLC settled a class action lawsuit in 2011 that claimed the company falsely represented Enfamil LIPIL as the only formula that contains DHA and fatty acid ARA. Mead Johnson set up a fund of up to $12 million for class members.
The DHA in Horizon milk is derived from algae. On cartons, the milk is described as an “excellent source of hard-to-get plant-based DHA,” along with the boast that it has a “great taste” with “no fish oils.”
A half-gallon carton of organic milk had an average advertised price of $3.93, compared with $1.97 for non-organic milk, according to USDA data for the first two weeks of July.
DHA usually adds 30 cents to 80 cents to the half-gallon price, according to a survey by the USDA’s National Organic Program, which is charged with ensuring the integrity of organic products. Horizon’s DHA-enriched milk sells for as much as $4.99 a half-gallon at Whole Foods.
Todd Shields in Washington at email@example.com;