Immunity Support Claims – What You Need to Know
By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise is companies claiming their products can treat or prevent the disease by building up the body’s immune system. These claims raise red flags for both the FDA and FTC who have stepped up their enforcement activity over the past several months. While the FTC generally has jurisdiction over advertising (traditional, online and social media), and the FDA oversees labeling, joint warning letters have been sent to several companies making unsubstantiated COVID-19 disease claims according to Veronica Colas, an attorney specializing in food law with Hogan Lovells in Washington DC. Here’s what you need to know to provide sound guidance on this topic:
- Avoid unintended endorsement (affiliate marketing) – Even if you don’t manufacture a product making an unsubstantiated claim, if you write a blog or social post to highlight a product making a claim, that can be viewed as affiliate marketing. This is especially troubling if you earn commissions by promoting the sale of these products. In addition, refrain from interacting on social media with a company that is making immune boosting product claims as it can look like you are sanctioning their comments.
- Understand appropriate structure/function claims vs. health/disease claims – Health claims refer specifically to how a nutrient or ingredient impacts a disease or health condition and structure/function claims refer to how a nutrient impact the normal structure or function of the body. For example, “calcium helps create strong bones” is a structure/function claim. If a product makes a health or disease claim or implies it may prevent or treat a disease such as COVID-19, it is making a health claim. FDA has strict regulations on health claims.
- Determine if claims are correctly supported – Given the reality that there is currently no vaccine to prevent the coronavirus, any supplement touted as an “immune booster” or an “immune enhancer” is not likely to be proven effective in preventing, treating or curing the coronavirus. Help shoppers be wary of such claims which lack required scientific support that are showing up not only on supplements, but also on products such as essential oils and CBD products.
- Continue to provide dietary guidance about immune support - Offer practical nutrition education regarding how to support the immune system but be thoughtful about your approach and comments. Without naming any particular supplements or foods, you can certainly provide general healthy lifestyle guidance such as getting adequate sleep, encouraging physical activity and promoting the consumption of more fruits and vegetables to help support immune function.