CLAIMS : Dairy Industry to Push Calcium Health Benefits : Marketing: Research shows a link between milk consumption and reduced risk of hypertension. But the FDA must approve claims before product labels can promote the connection.


The dairy industry is hoping that printing health claims touting the benefits of increased daily calcium intake on low-fat milk products will help stem slumping sales, especially the decline in fluid milk consumption among adults.

Last week, the International Dairy Foods Assn. petitioned the federal government for approval to begin using labels that promote the connection between regular calcium intake and the reduced risk of hypertension.

The data on the benefits of calcium have been available since the mid-1980s but have not been much publicized, says Dr. David McCarron, professor of medicine at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.

“People need to hear this message: Calcium is the most commonly under-consumed macronutrient in the American diet,” says McCarron, a leading researcher in the field. Furthermore, he says, not getting enough calcium is the most common dietary problem in the United States after overeating.


Health claims on food labels were authorized by Congress in 1990 with passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Since 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved eight such statements, but only after reviewing the relevant scientific literature and finding there is “significant agreement that any such statement is true,” says FDA spokesman Brad Stone.

In support of its petition, the dairy industry has submitted 1,200 research papers supporting the calcium/hypertension connection.

The FDA-approved health claims are not in wde circulation because of the highly restrictive language requirements, but they are being used. One of the most common is found on placards in supermarket produce counters stating that diets rich in fruit and vegetables “may reduce the risk of some types of cancer.”

Per capita sales of fluid milk are down 7% from 1985 to about 24.6 gallons per person, according to industry statistics. And milk’s share of the overall beverage market is also declining, down 11% since 1983 to only 15% of the total beverages consumed in this country. Milk consumption drops significantly in all groups after the age of 12.

An estimated 58 million American adults have hypertension in the form of high blood pressure. The disease is the leading cause of strokes and a major contributor to heart attacks, heart failure and kidney failure, according to FDA.

Several groups are at particular risk for the disease, including young women, the elderly, African Americans, pregnant women, diabetics, sodium-sensitive individuals and children from families with a history of high blood pressure.

“Within the last 15 years, numerous observational epidemiologic studies ... have reported . . . the lower the calcium intake, the higher the blood pressure or the risk of developing high blood pressure,” according to the dairy industry petition filed with the FDA. “We recognize that the measured blood pressure responses to dietary calcium supplementation in experimental situations are modest. However, even a modest reduction in blood pressure could have a significant health benefit given the large prevalence of hypertension in the U.S. population.”

The International Dairy Foods Assn. petition goes on to state that increased calcium intake is more effective in reducing high blood pressure than restricted sodium intake.

Average calcium consumption is below recommended levels in this country, says Jerome J. Kozak, senior vice president of the International Dairy Foods Assn. in Washington.

The U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance for calcium is 800 milligrams per day for adults, but the actual intake of the mineral is about 600 milligrams based on information from food consumption surveys. As many as 75% of adult women are likely to be calcium-deficient.

If the FDA approves the calcium/hypertension health claim, it would be restricted to low-fat varieties of dairy products. Whole milk, for instance, could not be considered beneficial for calcium because of its offsetting drawback of high fat content.

Dairy foods are the primary source of calcium in the American diet, accounting for 75% of the total. Other calcium sources include dark leafy greens, some nuts and sardines.

The calcium/hypertension health claim is not expected to generate significant opposition, especially because the statement would apply only to low-fat dairy products.

The other health claims already approved by the FDA for foods:

* Regular calcium intake among teen-age and other young women, particularly whites and Asians, may lead to a reduced risk of osteoporosis in later life.

* Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.

* Low-fat diets are associated with reduced risk of some cancers.

* Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

* High-fiber foods such as grain products, fruits and vegetables help reduce the risk of cancer.

* Foods high in fiber, particularly soluble fiber, such as grains and produce, are linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

* Regular intake of folic acid for women of child-bearing age helps reduce the risk of giving birth to children with neural tube defects.

* Low-fat diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of some kinds of cancer.