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Yogurts can now make limited claim that they lower type 2 diabetes risk, FDA says

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In a decision nearly five years in the making, the US Food and Drug Administration has decided that yogurts can now make a limited claim that the food may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, the federal agency concluded Friday.

The decision marks the first-ever qualified health claim the federal agency has issued for yogurt.

Qualified health claims “are supported by scientific evidence, but do not meet the more rigorous ‘significant scientific agreement’ standard required for an authorized health claim,” according to the FDA. “To ensure that these claims are not misleading, they must be accompanied by a disclaimer or other qualifying language to accurately communicate to consumers the level of scientific evidence supporting the claim.”

In the case of yogurt, the claim states that according to limited scientific evidence, “eating yogurt regularly, at least 2 cups (3 servings) per week,” may reduce risk of the disease that affects about 38 million people in the US and roughly 462 million individuals worldwide.

Yogurt can be a nutrient-rich addition to a healthy diet. - Basak Gurbuz Derma/Moment RF/Getty Images
Yogurt can be a nutrient-rich addition to a healthy diet. - Basak Gurbuz Derma/Moment RF/Getty Images

Underpinning the serving size recommendation is the FDA’s conclusion that, based on two prospective cohorts evaluated in high-quality studies, the specific amount is the minimum necessary to achieve the claimed effect.

Made from milk fermented with the bacteria, or probiotics, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, yogurt is rich in calcium, protein, B vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.

The move comes in response to a 2018 petition submitted by food and beverage company Danone North America. The submission set in motion an FDA review of existing research on the relationships between yogurt and type 2 diabetes, according to a news release.

“The petition to allow a qualified health claim related to type 2 diabetes to appear on yogurt labels followed the appropriate steps and included peer-reviewed research to support their petition,” said Dr. Caroline Passerrello, a registered dietitian nutritionist and an instructor in the University of Pittsburgh’s school of health and rehabilitation sciences, via email.

But in addition to the supporting research being limited, it’s also “not very strong,” Passerrello added. The way the studies were conducted “means we can’t really say for sure there is a causal relationship, but more of a correlation between type 2 diabetes and yogurt.”

CNN has reached out to the FDA for comment.

Qualified health claims have been allowed by the FDA for dietary supplements since 2000 and for food since 2002, but they are rarely announced. In the past decade, only 10 foods have been allowed to be sold with such claims — including high-flavonol cocoa powder for reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and certain cranberry products for lowered odds of recurrent urinary tract infections among women.

Dr. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and molecular biologist, echoed Passerrello’s sentiments, adding that “qualified health claims are ridiculous on their face.”

“Why would any sensible person think that all you have to do to prevent type 2 diabetes is eat 2 cups of yogurt a week?” said Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, via email. “All we can hope is that the yogurt is at least unsweetened, but since it’s really hard to find unsweetened yogurt, this is telling people who want to avoid type 2 diabetes that sweetened yogurts are good for them.”

“According to the FDA’s review of the studies, the amount of sugar in the yogurt made no difference to the results,” Nestle added. “Therefore, according to the FDA, sugar is a non-issue.”

Any yogurts can make this limited claim as long as they use the exact wording specified by the FDA, Nestle added. High consumption of added sugar has been linked with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes in multiple studies.

Adding to the dubiousness of the claim is the reality that the cause of type 2 diabetes is multifactorial, so even though yogurt can be part of a healthy, weight-maintaining diet, “to expect yogurt on its own to be causally associated with diabetes prevention makes no sense out of the context of the diet as a whole,” Nestle said.

In this context, when evaluating the health claims of products to make the best choices for your diet and health status, using “common sense” is critical, Nestle added.

Previous research has suggested limiting added sugar intake to less than 25 grams, or about 6 teaspoons, per day. That’s equivalent to about 2 ½ chocolate chip cookies, 16 ounces of fruit punch or around 1 ½ tablespoons of honey.

Nutritionist and writer Lisa Drayer contributed to this report.

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