Behind the Label: Pom Wonderful vs. The FTC

A government assault on the pomegranate.

Everyone knows that juice is good for you. But can a company claim that its benefits extend beyond general healthfulness? That was the question at hand last week, when a judge ruled that pomegranate juice purveyor Pom Wonderful was misleading customers by saying that its product reduces the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and impotence. The ruling came two years after a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission contending that Pom’s advertising was false and misleading.

Though the decision clearly stated that the juice company had insufficient evidence to support its claims, Pom reacted with a set of full-page celebratory advertisements in publications like the New York Times, with pull-out quotes from the ruling about the health benefits of pomegranates, which many critics say were taken out of context. The case begs the question: is pomegranate juice the “antioxidant superpower,” “death cheater,” and “life preserver” that Pom claims it is? Or is it no different than a glass of Tropicana?

When Stewart and Linda Rae Resnick started Pom Wonderful in 2002, few were familiar with the sweet, juicy, seed-filled pomegranate. But thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign on the fruit’s health benefits, pomegranates soon started showing up in everything from muffins to green tea to vodka, with Pom at the center of the frenzy.

Though the fruit originally hails from modern-day Iraq and Iran, Pom’s juice comes from pomegranates grown in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Pom promotes its juice as coming from “tree to bottle,” without added sugars, colorants, or low-grade fruit juices. In fact, in an interesting twist, Pom has previously sued competitor brand Minute Maid for false and misleading advertising surrounding its Enhanced Pomegranate Blueberry Juice, which contains just 0.3% pomegranate juice. The full story, from Pom’s point of view, is available in an article titled The True Story Behind Pomegranate Juice: Why POM is the Real Deal and Why Minute Maid is a Deceptive Sham. (Those juice guys sure don’t mince words.)

The Good

As far as juices go, pomegranate is pretty exceptional. One 8-ounce bottle provides about 50 percent of an adult’s recommended daily allowance of vitamins A, C, and E; 100 percent RDA of folic acid; and 13 percent RDA of potassium. In 2008, a UCLA study ranked it the healthiest fruit juice, above red wine and concord grape juice, because of its high levels of disease-fighting antioxidants.

Claims that pomegranate juice can help fight prostrate cancer originated in a series of studies reported in Harvard Men’s Health Watch in 2007. In the first study, pomegranate fruit extracts were shown to slow the growth of cultured cancer cells. Those cancer cells were then implanted in mice, which developed smaller tumors than untreated animals after receiving water laced with pomegranate juice. In another study, of men living with prostrate cancer, drinking pomegranate juice lengthened PSA doubling time and slowed tumor growth.

The same article referenced previous studies of pomegranate juice’s effect on heart disease, which showed that it can protect bad cholesterol from oxidative damage. Two small clinical trials also showed that pomegranate juice can lead to a decrease in carotid artery thickness and an improvement in cardiac blood flow.

But while the Harvard studies suggest a correlation between pomegranate juice consumption and better health, the article made sure not to state a direct causal relationship. It concluded:

The bottom line: Early studies raise hopes that pomegranates may have potential benefits for prostate cancer and heart disease, but more research is needed to determine whether these hopes are justified.

The Bad

Pom’s troubles began about two years ago, in September 2010, when the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against Pom for deceptive and misleading advertising, particularly relating to claims about the juice’s prevention and treatment of heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. “Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a CBS News report.

On May 17, the complaint reached a conclusion with a cease-and-desist order from FTC chief administrative judge D. Michael Chappell, which stated:

The greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony demonstrates that there is insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate claims that the Pom products treat, prevent or reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction or that they are clinically proven to do so.

The ruling mentioned similar findings on Pom’s claims regarding heart disease and prostate cancer, and it ordered Pom and parent company Roll Global to submit ad and marketing materials, complaints, and comments to the FTC for the next five years.

Though some might see the ruling as devastating, Pom Wonderful seemed to view it as a win. On its website, Pom announced that it was “vindicated,” and in a corporate press release, it stated: “In a 335 page ruling, the FTC’s Administrative Law Judge has upheld POM Wonderful’ s right to share valuable, scientifically-validated information about the health benefits of its safe food with consumers.”

Pom also followed up the ruling with a number of provocative advertisements published last week, taglined: “FTC vs. POM: You be the judge.”

In the advertisements, Pom quotes statements from Judge Chappell’s ruling, which state that the health benefits of pomegranate juice are not in doubt and that pomegranate juice provides a benefit to erectile and prostate health.

But food scientist and activist Marion Nestle, who authors the blog Food Politics, decided to fact-check these quotes. One ad, for example, reads:

Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health, including by prolonging PSA doubling time in men with rising PSA after primary treatment for prostate cancer (page 282).

But after that quotation in the actual FTC document, the paragraph continues:

However, the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by Respondents is not adequate to substantiate claims that the POM Products treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer or that they are clinically proven to do do so.

It’s the same story with another Pom-celebrated quote:

Competent and reliable scientific evidence shows that pomegranate juice provides a benefit to promoting erectile health and erectile function (page 198).

Followed immediately by:

There is insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to show that pomegranate juice prevents or reduces the risk of erectile dysfunction or has been clinically proven to do so.

The Questionable

The FTC’s ruling itself was considered a blow to Pom Wonderful and the pomegranate industry as a whole. But the company’s response seems to have damaged its reputation even more. Forbes columnist David Vinjamuri sums it up well:

Corporate communications groups rarely get high points for transparency, but this release shows a singular lack of accountability to the consumer that hurts POM Wonderful, its sister brands and the consumer brand community as a whole.

In this case, no one seems to be debating the fact that pomegranate juice is good for you. Taken in moderation as part of a healthful diet, it’s a great source of antioxidants and vitamins. But as with all juices, Pom’s health benefits have to be weighed against its natural sugar content, which clocks out at a whopping 31 grams per 8-ounce bottle – nearly as much as a can of Coca Cola.

In short, if you like fruit juice and enjoy the taste of pomegranates, by all means drink Pom. But if you’re looking to prevent and treat disease, you’d be better off reevaluating your entire diet and lifestyle, rather than relying on the “miracle juice” that Pom says it is.


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Images: Pom Wonderful

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.