Europeans reject two thirds of proposed health claims

By Amanda Johnson 08/10/2009

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last week published a series of opinions on ‘general function’ health claims compiled by Member States and the European Commission.

Experts from the EFSA evaluated the scientific evidence for more than 500 claims.

In a press release issued last week, the EFSA state:

’The opinions provide scientific advice on 523 health claims relating to over 200 foods and food components such as vitamins and minerals, fibre, fats, carbohydrates, ‘probiotic’ bacteria, and botanical substances. For approximately one third of the claims the outcomes of the evaluations were favourable as there was sufficient scientific evidence to support the claims. These related mainly to functions of vitamins and minerals, and also included dietary fibres, and fatty acids for maintenance of cholesterol levels, and sugar-free chewing gum for maintenance of dental health. Almost half of the evaluations with unfavourable outcomes were owing to a lack of information on the substance on which the claim is based, for example ‘probiotic’ bacteria and botanical substances. Without clear identification of the substance in question, the Panel could not verify that the scientific evidence provided to EFSA related to the same substance for which the health benefits are claimed.’

It’s interesting that the claims where there was sufficient scientific evidence were those relating to functions of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. This is an area where there has been lots of research, and we can be confident of the function of various nutrients and amounts required for optimal health. For example, it is well established that calcium is good for bone health, and we know that good food sources of calcium include milk, yoghurt and cheese, so there shouldn’t be a problem with identifying such foods as a ‘good source of calcium’.

The lack of evidence on probiotic bacteria is not surprising. I’m quite fond of probiotics myself — and there has been lots of research in this area, especially in relation to the effects of probiotics on infectious outcomes and inflammatory conditions in humans. The trouble is though that although positive effects have been observed, effects tend to vary depending on the species of bacteria, the dose of the probiotic organism, the duration of dietary supplementation and the population group involved. This makes it difficult to make a generic claim on a product aimed at a wide population group.

Of course, the lack of evidence for efficacy for many botanical and herbal substances is well known, with much of the research in this area based on small studies with limited sample sizes, which are of short duration. That’s not to say there isn’t some positive evidence for some herbal substances, but certainly it’s an area, in general, requiring much more robust research.

So, what’s the New Zealand situation? Well, at the moment health claims are not allowed on foods (except for the claim that maternal consumption of folate helps prevent neural tube defects in developing foetuses). Products can, however, make nutrient claims such as ’this food is high in fibre’. Any implied claims, often part of marketing and advertising, should not be misleading under the Fair Trading Act or the Food Act.

A new standard (P293) for Health, Nutrition and Related Claims is currently under development by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).  Safeguards on the use of these claims will be introduced to ensure that consumers are able to make informed and healthy choices while preventing misleading claims.

Three types of claims are under consideration: claims about nutrient content, general health claims, and high level health claims that describe a relationship between consumption of a food and benefits to health with reference to a serious disease or health condition. Manufacturers will need to collate evidence to substantiate health claims and high level health claims will need to be pre-approved on a case by case basis by FSANZ.

More information is available on the NZFSA website.

More information on the proposed changes to the health claims permitted can be found on the FSANZ website here.

It is important that scientific rigor underpins any claims made on foods and that claims are helpful in supporting consumers in making informed decisions about the food they buy.

If we spot a food product with information on the packaging that we think is incorrect or misleading, we can contact the NZFSA in the first instance to determine if the issue is covered by the Food Act or the Fair Trading Act.

There is more on this topic on the website.