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Can yogurt reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes?

Sharp-eyed grocery shoppers may notice new labels in the dairy aisle touting yogurt as way to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

That’s because the Food and Drug Administration recently said it’s OK for producers of yogurt to make that claim — though the agency acknowledged that it’s based on limited evidence.

Why did FDA allow claim?

Danone North America, the U.S. branch of the French company that makes several popular yogurt brands, asked the FDA in 2018 for clearance to make what is known as a “qualified health claim.” The FDA gave Danone the nod in March.

The way the FDA sees it, there’s some support — but not significant scientific agreement — that eating at least two cups of yogurt per week may reduce the risk of developing the disease that affects about 36 million Americans.

What’s a ‘qualified health claim’?

Those are claims that lack full scientific support but are permitted if the product labels include disclaimers to keep from misleading the public.

They have been allowed for dietary supplements since 2000 and for foods since 2002, since the FDA faced lawsuits challenging the standard of requiring scientific agreement for product claims. Back then, lawyers argued that such standards violated free speech rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Rather than fight proposed label changes in court, the FDA created a new category, separate from authorized health claims, in which products must prove significant scientific agreement among qualified experts that they reduce the risk of a disease or a health-related condition.

Examples of qualified health claims include reports that consuming some types of cocoa might reduce heart disease and that cranberry juice might cut the risk of recurrent urinary tract infections in women.

What do experts say?

Danone submitted information from studies that observed participants over time and found a link between eating yogurt and lower markers of diabetes. The FDA agreed that there is “some credible evidence” of benefit of eating yogurt as a whole food, but not because of any particular nutrient in it.

In other words, there is no direct evidence that yogurt can prevent diabetes — only weak evidence that eating yogurt might be associated with reducing certain biomarkers that are related to increase risk of the disease.

Critics questioned approval of the claim, saying it’s not based on gold-standard randomized controlled trials that could have proven whether yogurt reduces Type 2 diabetes risk.

No single food can reduce the risk of a disease tied to overall diet, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest said. In fact, the label change might raise the risk of diabetes by encouraging consumption of yogurt types that include added sugars and mix-ins such as cookies and pretzels.

Marion Nestle, a food policy expert, said qualified health claims based on limited evidence are “ridiculous on their face.”

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