June 28, 2005 -- A vegetarian activist group filed a pair of lawsuits Tuesday to try to stop what it calls a false and misleading ad campaign connecting dairy consumption with weight loss.
The group is upset over dairy producers' $100 million "milk mustache" advertising campaign, part of which advises consumers that consuming dairy products can help speed weight loss.
The ads are widespread in magazines and newspapers and on the Internet. A web site for the campaign tells consumers that they can "slim down with milk."
The site, owned by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), states: "Studies suggest that a reduced calorie eating plan that includes 24 ounces of fat-free or low-fat milk a day may give your weight loss efforts a boost. Milk seems to help by cranking up your body's ability to burn fat -- particularly around the middle."
But activists attacked those claims Tuesday, saying that the vast majority of scientific studies have found that dairy consumption has no effect on body weight.
Representatives of the IDFA would not comment on the lawsuits, saying they had not yet reviewed them. But Isabel Maples, a spokeswoman for the National Dairy Council, tells WebMD that the industry does not claim that milk consumption is a "magic bullet for weight loss."
The National Dairy Council is a WebMD sponsor.
"It is an emerging science. We certainly feel very confident that we have been responsible in not trying to jump on the bandwagon and make it more than it really is," she says.
A class-action lawsuit filed in Virginia by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) charges several major food companies and dairy industry groups, including the IDFA, with mounting "a massive, deceptive advertising campaign" connecting dairy consumption with weight loss.
Charges of False Advertising
The PCRM is a controversial group that advocates good health and nutrition through a strict vegetarian diet. On its web site, the group makes associations between multiple medical conditions and eating animal-based foods. These include linking consumption of dairy products to arthritis pain, bone fractures from osteoporosis, and the development of multiple sclerosis. \
Approximately 20 studies have looked at the effect of increasing dairy intake on body weight. Two published studies found that obese adults consuming three servings of dairy products per day -- as part of a calorie-reduced diet -- lost significantly more weight than those who consumed no dairy.
But the PCRM says 14 other studies found that dairy consumption had virtually no effect on body weight. According to the PCRM, the overwhelming evidence contradicts industry claims that milk aids weight loss.
The group filed a complaint about the ads with the Federal Trade Commission in April, but the agency has yet to take action.
"We recognize the dairy industry has a right to advertise their products. They should do so without making false health claims," says Mindy Kursban, executive director and general counsel for the PCRM.
A second lawsuit brought by 48-year-old Catherine Holmes and backed by the PCRM seeks $236 to pay back money Holmes says she spent on dairy products hoping to lose weight.
"Not only did I not lose weight, I gained weight. Not a lot, a few pounds. This is not a tragedy, I'll lose the weight," Holmes said at a news conference. "I just want the truth to come out."
New federal dietary guidelinesNew federal dietary guidelines published in January increased the recommended dairy intake from two servings per day to three. But the recommendation was based on health benefits of calcium and other nutrients and not on weight loss.
"At this time there is insufficient evidence on which to base a more definitive statement regarding the intake of milk products and management of body weight," the report states.
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, a dietitian and anesthesiologist at Altoona Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania, says that she strongly recommends three servings of dairy products per day for children until they reach puberty and for many adults. But the recommendation has nothing to do with promoting weight loss.
"That is a tough leap of faith. I would go with the 14 studies that show no strong effect," says Gerbstadt, a spokeswoman for the National Dietetic Association.
One Scientist Convinced
Still, the researcher of the two published studies directly linking dairy intake to weight loss says that the scientific evidence is now strong enough to conclude that milk intake can directly lead to fat loss.
"We absolutely have the data to support that," says Michael B. Zemel, PhD, director of the University of Tennessee Nutrition Institute.
In addition to the two studies already published, another three conducted by Zemel are soon to be published this summer concluding that milk intake aids weight loss -- but only in people with insufficient calcium intake. Other unpublished studies by Zemel show that calcium has a direct effect on hormones, including calcitriol, which can interfere with the breakdown of fat.
"For people with adequate intake, I would predict no effect," he tells WebMD.
All of Zemel's studies were funded by dairy industry interests, which activists point to when they question the validity of the findings.
Zemel confirms that he has received nearly $3 million in research funding from companies and industry groups marketing dairy products, including the National Dairy Council and General Mills. He has also been paid by the National Dairy Council for speeches, he says.
Zemel says that consumers "should be aware" of who funds his research but that they should not be concerned. "I will not allow anyone to control the outcome of my study or when, where, or how I report the data," he says.