- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Olivene Robbins swears that a daily glass of concentrated tart cherry juice cured her painful gout.

“It’s almost like a miracle to me,” says the 69-year-old resident of Hickory, N.C.

Customers like Mrs. Robbins are now caught in the middle of a fight between federal health officials and the cherry industry.

The industry is marketing cherries as health food, trumpeting research showing that they contain helpful antioxidants, along with testimonials from buyers. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered 29 companies to stop making unproven claims that their cherry products treat or prevent disease.

“We have the government telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture funding some of these fruit studies, and now we have another arm of the federal government that says you can’t use the research,” said Bob Underwood, whose Traverse City company sells capsules containing cherry and blueberry paste.

Since receiving letters from the FDA last fall, some cherry-product producers have removed — or at least reworded — their health benefit statements. Others still make the connection, and an industry group is continuing a promotional campaign telling consumers that cherries are good for them.

“We’ve always tried to report the science, to stick with the facts, to report things as they are and not exaggerate,” said Jane DePriest, marketing director for the Lansing, Mich.-based Cherry Marketing Institute.

Some producers complain that the government is picking on a small industry whose products are harmless.

“Nobody ever claimed they had adverse side effects from eating cherries, which is more than you can say for a lot of drugs,” said Steve de Tar, president of Brownwood Acres Foods in Eastport, where Mrs. Robbins buys her juice concentrate.

His business, once a roadside farm market in northern Michigan orchard country, boomed so dramatically after it started Internet juice sales that it made Inc. magazine’s 2004 list of the nation’s 500 fastest-growing privately held companies.

The cherry industry is not alone on the antioxidant bandwagon. Foods as varied as blueberries, green tea and chocolate have been touted as being rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants are thought to neutralize free radicals, which are compounds that damage cells in the body and are implicated in disorders such as cancers.

The FDA told the 29 companies that by claiming that their products could prevent, treat or cure disease, they were, in effect, calling them drugs, which are covered by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. New drugs require FDA approval and testing.

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