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FDA Warns Tea Isn’t a Drug

By Lori Bricker, MS, RD

In an effort to be helpful, customers and friends sometimes tell us we should use some health factoid about tea in our ads, labels, etc.  We try to explain that we are prevented from doing that by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules. Often, people don’t quite understand and sometimes even argue with us about it.  Maybe recent news will drive home the message.

Last week, several news sources reported on the FDA’s warnings to the makers of Lipton tea and Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale that they had violated some of the rules regarding health claims for foods.  (Here is just one of the articles.)  For those of you who would like to know more about the rules themselves, I wrote a post about that too.

Briefly, the warnings to Lipton’s parent company, Unilever are:

1.  The FDA says that Unilever is marketing its “Lipton Green Tea 100% Naturally Decaffeinated” product as a drug. The product bears a link to Lipton’s web site where research articles are discussed that show green tea lowers cholesterol.  According to the FDA, any substance which is “intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” is defined as a drug.  Tea has not been approved for this use, and therefore, claims like this cannot be made by manufacturers.

2.  The FDA says that Unilever has misused the term “antioxidants” in several ways, which violates the “nutrient content claims” rule. This rule regulates how companies can use terms such as reduced, low, lite, more, good source, high, free, etc.  You can only use these terms with nutrients that have an established daily value, such as sodium, calcium, fat, calories, etc.  To qualify as “low fat,” for example, a product has to meet certain standards about how much fat is in the product.  The FDA charges that Lipton’s web site uses terms such as rich source of antioxidants and rich in naturally protective antioxidants, but does not list which antioxidants these were nor the levels present in the product.

If you want to read the warning letter yourself, it is available on the FDA’s site (link to the letter).

I’ve certainly tried to make clear my view that tea is NOT a magic bullet and that you should read articles about tea and health in the press with great caution and an overall skeptical mindset.  I think in the future I will try to make this even more clear.  I also need to investigate further to find out how much, if anything, can be said about research studies by those in the tea industry, since we do discuss those things here in the blog.

I know this kind of thing can stir up some emotions one way or another.  Feel free to offer your comments below.

2 comments to FDA Warns Tea Isn’t a Drug

  • Glad to see this posted here. I've been saying for awhile now that the whole issue of tea health claims is bad for tea: Nobody expects health food to taste good, so people will swallow all kinds of bad tea because it is supposed to be healthy.  Tea has virtually no calories and can be useful in hydration. Good tea is also delicious. Isn't that enough?

  • I agree.  Although I occasionally hear from people who started drinking tea just for the health benefits, the overwhelming majority drink it because they like the taste, the history of it, the "slow food" nature of it, etc., and they consider any health benefits a happy coincidence. As a dietitian who has done quite a bit of nutrition counseling, my experience is that when someone starts consuming a food or beverage just for the health benefits, it rarely lasts very long unless they genuinely enjoy it.  I would much prefer to see tea consumption grow because it is a delicious and interesting beverage.  Thanks for the comment! — Lori

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