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FDA regulates health claims in tea

Charles Cain - Apr 27th 2011

Tea and health

The proper role of health claims in the sale and marketing of tea has been one of the core debates of the last decade. Health studies and claims have played a huge role in driving awareness and consumption. Unsubstantiated and outrageous claims have also contributed to some general consumer skepticism. In the last couple years the FDA has cracked down hard, banning nearly all claims of any type whether in retail packaging or even on company websites.

Most recently the FDA sent a warning letter to Rishi Teas about claims made on their website. (see letter here). What's particularly shocking is that most of these claims are the same that nearly EVERY tea retailer is making... claims that were, until recent years, considered perfectly safe and appropriate.

Among the "claims" that the FDA took issue with:

  • "[G]inger is used in food and drinks as a preventive medicine against colds [and] flus."
  • "The powerful antioxidants found in tea are believed to help prevent cancer [and] lower cholesterol."
  • "Recent research suggests that consuming 5-8 cups of Pu-erh Tea each day can reduce cholesterol and plaque of the arteries."
  • "Regular consumption of Oolong Tea is linked to the reduction of plaque in the arteries, reduction of cholesterol and lowering of blood sugar."
  • "Oolong Tea is prized for its cholesterol reducing."
  • "White Tea contain[s] high concentrations of L-Theanine Amino Acid."

Because Rishi products like Oolong Tea, Ginger, Organic Botanical, Green Oolong Tea, 100% Premium Tealeaf Powder and Pu-erh Tea are not Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for the uses being marketed the FDA says they are considered "new drugs" and may not be legally marketed in the United States without prior approval.

Perhaps the most confounding and potentially impact-full ruling, the FDA is banning the use of terms like "rich in", "good source of" or "high" for any ingredient unless the product contains 20% or more of the Recommended Daily Value of that nutrient. Because nutrients like antioxidants, L-theanine, polyphenols and amino acids do not have recommended daily values, the FDA insists that it's impossible and inaccurate to say that tea is a "good source of" or "rich in" any of these components.

The FDA sent warning letters to Lipton and Snapple last year, but the fact that they are turning their attention to smaller companies like Rishi Teas is a bit surprising.

Some of these rulings seem a bit extreme to me, but others make good sense. Regardless, they are in line with the FDA's direction in recent years. Keep an eye on this. It could have a dramatic impact on a lot of tea companies.

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