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Dairy industry sued over claim its products can aid weight loss

WASHINGTON—A health advocacy group filed suit Tuesday against the dairy industry, accusing it of false advertising in its $200 million campaign that ties dairy product consumption to weight loss.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based nonprofit closely aligned with animal rights groups, is demanding an end to the industry's current weight-loss campaign. It wants a new campaign that admits the current one is misleading and false.

General Mills, Kraft and the dairy industry's marketing arm have used product labels and ads that say three servings of dairy products a day, along with a decrease in calorie intake and additional exercise, can help people lose weight.

A typical label reads like this one on a Yoplait yogurt container:

"A recent study suggests that Yoplait light enhances weight and fat loss as part of a reduced calorie, high calcium diet—three servings daily."

The lawsuit charges that the dairy industry based its marketing overwhelmingly on research by one scientist whose work it has supported.

A dairy industry executive, Dr. Greg Miller, said the campaign is based on more than 10 years of research and more than a dozen studies.

"We feel very confident in the science that supports the claims we have in the marketplace," said Miller, senior vice president at the International Dairy Foods Association, one of the defendants.

Miller's group and Dairy Management Inc., sponsors of the campaign, are defendants in the lawsuit.

The only named plaintiff in the class-action suit, Catherine Holmes, of Arlington, Va., said in a press conference that she gained "a few pounds," not lost, when she followed the industry's suggested guidelines. She said she consumed some of her favorite dairy products, including buttermilk, fermented milk products and cheese.

Holmes seeks damages of $236 for the additional dairy servings she consumed to meet the campaign's recommended servings.

The Physicians Committee says the dairy industry's claims are based overwhelmingly on research conducted by a University of Tennessee nutritionist, Dr. Michael Zemel. He's the author of a book titled "The Calcium Key," which recommends low-calorie, high-calcium diets for people trying to lose weight.

Zemel said in a telephone interview that dairy products weren't the only answer to weight loss.

"This is not some giant eraser that can erase all your calories in your diet," Zemel said. "This is not a monolithic answer to obesity."

Zemel and Miller confirmed that the International Dairy Foods Association had paid the University of Tennessee for licensing fees to use Zemel's research to market its members' products. The money was used to recover research costs, Zemel said. Neither he nor Miller would say how much was paid.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, said the dairy industry had relied too much on Zemel's work.

"The body of research does not support the dairy industry," Jacobson said. "And Zemel's study is very limited."

The new U.S. dietary guidelines, Jacobson noted, recommend that people consume three servings of dairy products to help meet daily calcium requirements. But they say nothing about weight loss.

Miller responded, "We are not looking at the science through milk-colored glasses."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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