Drug nuts?

Everyone knows that walnuts are good for you … except the FDA

Healthful superfood, or drug of nature?

Healthful superfood, or drug of nature?

Like virtually any of the objects broadly classified as “fruits” that grow annually on tree branches and vines and can be eaten raw and unprocessed, walnuts and almonds are widely considered healthful foods. They contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and a range of minerals. Moreover, numerous studies link nut consumption to various conditions of improved health.

But more than once when the California nut industry, which is rooted firmly in local soils, has made health claims about consumption of walnuts or almonds, federal food and labeling authorities have objected and ruled the statements to be illegal. The last time this happened was in early 2010, when the Food and Drug Administration called out Diamond Foods, a San Francisco-based food company and nut packer, for making a variety of health claims about walnuts. The FDA sent the company’s owner, Michael Mendes, a letter on Feb. 22, 2010, demanding that statements on Diamond’s website and on packages containing raw, shelled walnuts be removed.

The letter, written by Roberta Wagner of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, challenged Diamond’s claims that the omega-3 fatty acids contained in walnuts can reduce cholesterol levels and lower one’s risk of heart disease. The FDA also believed that the manner in which Diamond Foods advertised the health benefits of walnuts qualified them as a drug—but the label, wrote Wagner, failed to provide consumers with “adequate directions” for using said drug. (If any readers need instructions on how to consume walnuts, please call the News & Review. We can help.)

Yet the FDA has not challenged egregiously misleading health claims touted by producers of processed snack foods. Packages of Corazonas Lightly Salted Tortilla Chips, for instance, brazenly state in bold print, “Proven to help lower cholesterol,” based on the fact that plant sterols, contained in the product, have been associated with lower rates of heart disease.

And while the FDA rejected Diamond Foods’ use of a heart symbol on its product, saying it was misleading, Corazonas’ chief marketing logo is a large heart on the face of its chips packages. Frito-Lay has even made heart-shaped pretzels (called “heartzels”) under the stated premise that the snacks—made mostly of refined flour—are “heart healthy.”

Local nut farmers are sore about the matter, but all those we contacted declined to allow their names in print. One of them, who grows almonds and walnuts outside Chico, was closely involved in a legal skirmish several years ago between the Almond Board of California and federal watchdogs, who rejected an advertised health claim made by the board about almonds.

“Almonds have all these wonderful attributes as a complex whole food,” the farmer said. “They have alpha-tocopherol vitamin E, which reduces the risk of cancer, and they can lower cholesterol. They’ve got the fat profile of olive oil, and even with all this going for them, the Almond Board wasn’t allowed to say, ‘Almonds are healthy to eat.’”

But consumers don’t seem to need labels and ad campaigns to tell them nuts are healthful. Consumption of nuts—and especially walnuts—is fast on the rise, and in local orchards farmers are increasingly replacing old or diseased almond trees with walnut trees, which take longer to mature into production but are cheaper to tend, pollinate and harvest.

Dennis Balint, executive director of the California Walnut Board, reports that 235,000 acres of walnut trees are now in the ground statewide with another 20,000 acres yet to bear fruit. Awareness of walnuts’ healthful virtues, Balint says, is a major factor in the industry’s growth. In 2009, he says, walnut marketers conducted a consumer survey and found that 87 percent of the people questioned believed that walnuts were a healthful food.

Which, of course, they are—but you didn’t hear that from us.