FDA warns green tea makers against health claims

The Food and Drug Administration has warned producers of two popular brands of green tea drinks not to make unauthorized nutrient claims, continuing its clampdown on misleading food labeling.

In a warning letter to Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the FDA said the company’s Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale improperly claimed to be “enhanced” with antioxidants. Because it’s a carbonated drink and classified as a snack food, the beverage should not claim to be nutritionally fortified, the FDA said.

Further, ingredients purporting to contain antioxidants “are not nutrients with recognized antioxidant activity,” the letter said.

The FDA also asserted that a website for Unilever Inc.'s Lipton Green Tea 100% Naturally Decaffeinated made a health claim by linking consumption of green tea to reduced cholesterol for people at risk of heart disease.

Making such a health claim makes the Lipton green tea a drug, subject to requirements for proving safety and effectiveness, the FDA told Unilever. The FDA also said the company’s description of the tea’s antioxidant content runs afoul of other federal wording rules.

Unilever is reviewing the letter and is “committed to full compliance with the law,” according to a statement from the Dutch company, which has U.S. headquarters in Englewood, N.J.

A spokesman for Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group said the company was “looking forward to working with the FDA and addressing the issues raised.”

The letters, sent late last month, are the most recent in a series of warnings to food makers about nutrition claims, and are part of a broader FDA campaign to improve food labeling so that it contains more useful information.

In March, for example, the FDA issued warning letters to 17 food producers for misleading information about nutrition and health benefits in 22 products, including shelled walnuts and coconut cream pies.

The FDA has tended to be vigilant about policing food labels that make explicit disease-fighting claims — which are typically reserved for drugs.

“We are pleased to see the agency becoming more active on other misleading claims,” said Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has long prodded the FDA to take a harder line on labeling.

Companies that receive warning letters are supposed to reply within 15 days with a plan for correcting violations.

Silverglade noted, however, that in a recent check of Washington-area stores, products made by 12 of the 17 firms in the March crackdown had the same labeling.