Experts had called claims ‘deceptive’ and ‘discredited’
By Amy Karon
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has retreated from claims that consuming dairy products could aid weight loss after some experts branded the statements “deceptive” and “discredited.”
The state-supervised board, which is funded by dairy farmers, removed multiple claims about dairy’s role in weight loss and weight maintenance from its website early this week after the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism began publishing stories examining the board’s nutritional advice to consumers.
“Over the past few weeks we have reviewed some of the nutrition messages and have made some changes to closer align our weight control message with the healthy diet message,” Patrick Geoghegan, the board’s senior vice president for communications, wrote Tuesday night in an email interview.
The board’s weight loss claims had been on the website for at least eight months, since a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class began investigating the milk board in collaboration with the Center.
State law prohibits Wisconsin’s seven nonprofit agricultural marketing boards from making “false or unwarranted claims” about their products. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection supervises the boards, and has not filed a complaint about them with the state Department of Justice in at least 15 years, as the Center reported Monday.
In an earlier email interview, department of agriculture employee Noel Favia, who works with the boards, said the milk board had “never made claims that weren’t substantiated with scientific evidence.”
But Stephen Gardner, litigation director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, had reviewed the board’s weight loss claims at the Center’s request, along with 17 recent studies on dairy products and body weight. Gardner concluded the claims were “deceptive under Wisconsin law.”
The Center also interviewed nutrition experts at Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic, who pointed to limitations in the studies supporting the milk board’s claims. Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said any tie between dairy consumption and enhanced weight loss “has been totally discredited by research not funded by the National Dairy Council.”
National dairy marketing groups halted similar claims four years ago, after the Federal Trade Commission intervened.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 dietary guidelines state that “strong evidence in adults and moderate evidence in children and adolescents demonstrates that consumption of milk and milk products does not play a special role in weight management.”
But as of Saturday, the Wisconsin milk board, whose annual budget exceeds $30 million, still claimed on its website that “emerging research indicates consuming three servings of low-fat dairy products as part of a healthy diet and exercise plan will help with weight loss and weight maintenance.”
By Monday at 6:30 p.m., this and most similar claims were gone. One Web page still stated that low-fat dairy products “can play a role in better weight management.”
Geoghegan and Laura Wilford, a registered dietitian with the milk board, said in previous interviews that they didn’t know the board’s website included claims about dairy and weight loss.
But Geoghegan added that the board’s consumer messages were based on “sound, often peer-reviewed research that is continuously updated.”
In the email interview Tuesday, Geoghegan would not say whether the milk board planned other changes to its consumer messages, but wrote: “We constantly review all of our programs in an effort to improve them.”
Amy Karon is a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.