Two case studies on regulating health claims

You may have noticed products on the supermarket shelves that claim they are good for your health. This might be in relation to heart health or growth and development. Some labels might claim a nutritional benefit such as being ‘low fat’, ‘no added sugar’ and ‘high in fibre’. These are all examples of health claims, a term which applies to any labelling, advertising or marketing that states that health benefit can be gained from a particular food.

To protect the consumer and to ensure that any health claims are based on scientific evidence, in 2006 the EU adopted a regulation on the use of nutrition and health claims for foods based on nutrient profiles. This video by EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) explains this regulation and the criteria for considering a health claim:

  • Is the food or ingredient defined?

  • Is the claimed effect defined?

  • What is the evidence?

One of the first decisions of the EFSA panel, related to plant sterols and the claim that they could lower/reduce blood cholesterol and therefore reduce risk of heart disease [1]. (Plant sterols are cholesterol-like substances occurring in fruits, vegetables, nuts and cereals. When eaten in large amounts, they may lower levels of harmful LDL-choloesterol by competing with it and being absorbed by the body instead of it.) The panel considered three key elements of the claim:

  1. They accepted that plant sterols were a sufficiently characterised ingredient

  2. They accepted that lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) blood cholesterol by dietary intervention has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, and so the claimed effect of lowering LDL-cholesterol was beneficial to human health

  3. They accepted the applicant’s evidence that a cause-effect relationship had been established between the consumption of plant sterols and lowering of LDL-cholesterol.

Based on the available scientific evidence, the EFSA panel recommended wording the claim: ‘Plant sterols have been shown to lower/reduce blood cholesterol. Blood cholesterol lowering may reduce risk of coronary heart disease.’

Other claims have not been so successful. For example, a claim that ‘Probiotics and fermented vegetables and fruits support general health and show a specific immune modulating activity, which improves the immune system of children during growth’, was not approved [2]. (Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that exist in our intestines and, among other things, help us digest fibre.) This was because:

  1. The claimant did not provide sufficient information about the bacteria strains that were used for the fermentation of the vegetables and fruits

  2. The panel accepted that a well functioning immune system was related to health and growth, but did not accept that sufficient evidence had been provided that the product had the effect of improving the immune system

  3. A cause and effect relationship had not been established between consumption of the product and the claimed effect.

These two examples show the approach that EFSA uses to evaluate claims, which is based on ensuring that sufficient scientific evidence exists to support the claimed benefit.

Activity

Take a look at the labels of the products you have bought recently. Which health claims can you spot? Share your finds with other Learners in the comments section. Do you trust the claims?

References can be found at the end of the final Step in the course, under ‘Downloads’.

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This article is from the free online course:

How is Food Made? Understanding Processed Food

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