(Nov. 21) Federal regulators have good news and bad news regarding the link between tomatoes and a reduced risk of certain types of cancer.

The Food and Drug Administration said Nov. 8 that food companies may claim that tomatoes reduce the risk of prostate, gastric, ovarian and pancreatic cancers.

The catch?

Companies must spell out for consumers just how little scientific evidence there is supporting the health claims, an FDA spokesman said.

In a statement that will appear in Wilmington, Del.–based Produce For Better Health’s Nov. 23 newsletter, Linda Brugler, nutrition marketing manager at PBH, says making health claims requires a lot of scientific evidence.

“The qualified health claim for tomatoes and/or tomato sauce and a reduced risk of prostate cancer illustrates the rigor of scientific evidence needed to obtain health claims for individual foods,” she said.

“Of the 177 supporting documents submitted with the qualified health claims petition, there were only 13 human observational studies that had scientific significance related to the petition claim,” Brugler continued.

Brugler says that some of the studies found an association between tomatoes and a reduced risk of prostate cancer, while others did not.

“This of course resulted in the weak qualified claim granted to tomatoes and/or tomato sauce,” she said.

Brugler said she decided not to comment on the health claims for the other types of cancer because there is little to no scientific evidence supporting them. She said she doesn’t know why a company would advertise a health claim backed by almost no evidence.

Lycopene — the chemical that gives a tomato its color — is at the center of the debate. The FDA said it is hard to establish whether lycopene alone or a combination of nutrients provides the health benefits.

It’s clear that health claims affect the sale of fresh tomatoes, said Dawn Gray, vice president of marketing for B.C. Hot House Foods Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The initial research shows that it would have a favorable impact on how the consumer felt about purchasing fresh tomatoes,” she said.

While B.C. Hothouse touts the nutritional value of tomatoes on its Web site, the company doesn’t expect to promote the lycopene factor anytime soon.

“We need more clarification of the issue before we think about doing that,” she said.

The Florida Tomato Committee, Orlando, devotes part of its Web site to the health benefits of tomatoes, including a paragraph about lycopene. Samantha Winters, director of education and promotion, said the FDA’s ruling should solidify the link between tomatoes and a reduced risk of all types of disease.

“It shows there is enough evidence to suggest a link between tomatoes and a reduced risk of cancers and other diseases and that’s powerful,” Winters said.