Monday, January 24, 2005

The economics of the dairy weight-loss claim

You have probably seen the advertisements claiming that dairy products promote weight loss.


The claim might or might not be true. In the journal Obesity Research last year, a study of 32 individuals on calorie-restricted diets reported that those who consumed more dairy products showed greater weight loss. The latest issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter cites a larger study in which a high-dairy diet didn't help people lose weight (sorry, the article isn't online). I am not a nutritionist, so I generally rely on the Dietary Guidelines for the mainstream consensus view on these nutrition issues. The expert panel for the guidelines considered the evidence for such claims, and the Guidelines recommend lowfat dairy products for many reasons, but they do not corroborate the dairy weight-loss claim. The dairy weight-loss claim is also not on FDA's list of health claims that meet the standard of "significant scientific agreement."

You may be interested in some of the "nutrition economics" related to this claim. The lead author of the Obesity Research article is Michael Zemel, whose employer, the University of Tennessee, holds a patent on the claim that dairy consumption improves weight loss. Zemel is listed as "inventor" for the patent (enter patent number 6,384,087 in this link). The university has an agreement to license dairy weight-loss claims to private companies, and the enforcers of this agreement threaten lawsuits against those who make such claims without a license: "Companies that make claims but do not have a license could face legal action." Fear not, however. If you do purchase licensing rights, you will be permitted to make such claims regardless of whether your dairy products are low in fat! As an example of dairy industry interest, see Mayfield Dairy's promotion of dairy-based weight loss in collaboration with Tennessee on the Move, an affiliate of the national America on the Move, which promotes healthy living and counting "steps" using pedometers. The Tennessee on the Move affiliate strongly promotes dairy consumption as a weight-reduction tool. The nonprofit organization's executive director? Michael Zemel.

The Dietary Guidelines are supposed to be the federal government's "one voice" on nutrition advice, but the dairy checkoff programs -- USDA's government speech once again -- are not waiting for less strongly affiliated researchers to corroborate Zemel's work. Here is the checkoff-sponsored logo and website promoting dairy weight-loss claims:


Questions: Is this USDA-sponsored promotion subject to a licensing agreement with University of Tennessee? Is it consistent with the Dietary Guidelines? Is the public interest or private interest being served here?

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