Beware of Booty

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In January, Robert's American Gourmet, maker of a popular functional snack food line, recalled Pirate's Booty for mislabeling. The Good Housekeeping Institute independently tested the product and found that it contained 147 calories and 8.5 grams of fat per serving quite a difference from the 120 calories and 2.5 grams of fat reported on the label. The company attributed the discrepancy to a manufacturing problem. They needed to purchase new equipment to meet the public's high demand for Pirate's Booty. However, the new machinery "puffed up the rice and corn too much" and the recipe had to be altered, resulting in the higher fat content.

This was not the first time Robert's was caught mislabeling products. Once known for producing St. John's Wort Tortilla Chips and Kava Kava Corn Chips, the company has toned down its role in the functional food market after it received negative publicity for wild claims and mislabeling. In January 2000, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to the company for their false assertions that Fruity Booty was mostly fruit when in actuality it was a rice and corn dominated snack food. They also were warned for claiming on their Echinacea Shells' packaging, "echinacea facilitates the healing process and is used as a 'blood purifier' and can be an effective antibiotic." This antibiotic claim is unproven and labeling it as such was a federal violation. The FDA informed them, "Failure to make prompt corrections could result in regulatory action."

The FDA is prevented by law from requiring dietary supplements be proven safe and effective before they are marketed to consumers. However, they can prevent supplement manufacturers from claiming their products can cure, treat, or prevent a disease. Such claims are reserved for pharmaceutical agents with supporting scientific data. In the summer of 2000, functional foods which have no legal definition but commonly have added dietary supplements found themselves the target of negative publicity and rightly so. Many times supplements are added to foods and drinks without the exact amount of these supplements being disclosed on the packaging.

There are two reasons for concern:

First, large doses of these herbal supplements could result in drug-supplement interactions. For patients who are recent recipients of organ transplants or are taking drugs for cancer, heart disease, or AIDS, certain supplements could interfere with their medications, making them ineffective by "breaking [them] down more quickly than usual."

Second, there is growing concern over the relative safety of some supplements, such as kava, which in the past has been added to drinks and snacks to promote relaxation. Health Canada, the Canadian version of the FDA, recently released a warning, advising consumers to stay away from kava because of the dozen or more cases of liver toxicity and one death associated with its use in Europe.

The founder and CEO of Robert's American Gourmet, Robert Ehrlich, complied with FDA warnings and dropped products that caused alarm. He was quoted as saying: "We are not trying to sell anything unsafe or do anything that's not within the law. If we outstep our bounds, we are always looking for a way to get back inbounds. Robert's is constantly evolving." Pirate's Booty is now back on stores' shelves, its nutritional labeling a little more accurate. And, after much backlash, the Robert's functional snack food line is, you'll notice, quietly withdrawing the herbal supplements that in the past dominated its snack food. Personality Puffs, which once touted the supplements gingko biloba and St. John's wort, today contain nothing more than chamomile and orange peel. That's quite a personality change!