Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the EIT Food, University of Reading & European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT)'s online course, Understanding Food Labels. Join the course to learn more.
Individual reading a label on a jar

What's the difference between a 'nutrition' claim and a 'health' claim?

Have you noticed foods that claim particular nutritional or health benefits when you shop? Do you tend to buy them?

There are two main types of health-related claims that you can find on food packaging in the EU and it’s important to understand the difference between them. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Low salt’ - this is a nutrition claim (you’ll recall that salt is one of the components that must be listed on the Nutrition Declaration, Step 2.3).

  • ‘No added sugar’ - this is a nutrition claim (sugars must be listed on the Nutrition Declaration too).

  • ‘Contains vitamin D which contributes to the maintenance of normal bones’ - this is a health claim.

Consumers have a hard time differentiating between the two types of claim [1] and they are both subject to a legal framework (Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006) to ensure that claims made on food labels or in related advertising are clear, scientifically accurate and do not mislead consumers.

Nutrition claims

A nutrition claim is any claim which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular beneficial nutritional properties due to:

(a) the energy (calorific value) it provides (or doesn’t provide if it’s promoting the low calorie properties of the food)

(b) the nutrients or other substances it contains (or doesn’t contain if it’s promoting the benefits of a low quantity of, for example, sugar) [2].

There is a list of allowable claims (Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 Annex or Regulation (EU) No 1047/2012 that amended the annex) if the food meets certain criteria. For example, here are two claims that can be used in the EU if the food meets the relevant criteria:

  • ‘High fibre’ This can be used only if the product contains at least 6g of fibre per 100g or at least 3g of fibre per 100kcal.

  • ‘Sugar-free’ This can be used only if the product contains no more than 0.5g of sugars per 100g or 100ml.

We have collected together the nutrition claims that are allowed to be used in the EU, and their criteria for use, in a table which you can download from the Additional resources at the end of this Step.

Health claims

Health claims refer to statements that make a link between food and health. A health claims is ‘any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health’ [2].

Three types of health claims are distinguished in the Regulations.

  1. ‘Function health claims’ that refer to i) the growth, development and functions of the body, ii) psychological and behavioural functions, iii) slimming or weight-control. An example of this type of claim is, ‘Carbohydrates contribute to the maintenance of normal brain function’.

  2. ‘Risk Reduction Claims’ that refer to a reduced risk factor in the development of a certain disease. An example of this type of claim is, ‘Oat beta-glucan has been shown to lower/reduce blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease’.

  3. ‘Claims referring to children’s development’ that make a link between the food and children’s development. An example of this type of claim is ‘Iron contributes to normal cognitive development in children’.

When one of these claims has been legally included on a label, the manufacturer can also include a general, non-specific claim about the benefits of the food for good health and wellbeing (eg ‘Good for your health’ [3]).

The European Commission only authorises health claims if they are based on sound scientific evidence and are easy to understand by consumers. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has responsibility for evaluating the scientific evidence for the claimed effects [4]. If you’d like to find out more, the article Two case studies on regulating health claims from the course, How is my food made? goes into more detail. This video by EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) also explains this regulation and the criteria for considering a health claim.

All authorised health claims, the conditions for their use and the EFSA opinion on the scientific substantiation for the claims are publicly available in the EU Register on nutrition and health claims [5].

The Register contains all the text-based claims that have been authorised so far. However, nutrition and health claims can also be displayed as symbols, pictures, or combinations of words and pictures. These can only be used if certain, published criteria are met [3]. For example, the Dutch version of the Choices logo or the Toothfriendly logo can be seen as health claims. They’re not explicitly listed in the Register but they are in line with the criteria for nutrition and health claims provided in the Regulation.

A survey of the food products available in five EU countries demonstrated that various types of claims are in use across the EU, but their prevalence differs by country and by food category. Overall, about 21% of food carried nutrition claims, whereas about 11% carried health claims. Most of the health claims were ‘function health claims’. About 18% of health claims were symbolic. The ‘foods for specific dietary uses’ displayed the most nutrition and health claims [3].

Next time you see a nutrition or health claim on a food package or in advertisement we hope you’ll now have a better understanding of the types of claims and the legal framework behind them.

Activity

Find a product that you have bought, or might buy, because of its nutrition or health claim. Look up the claim either in the nutrition claims table at the end of this article, or in the health claims register . What can you find out about the science behind the claim? Does it make you more or less likely to buy the same product in future?

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Labels

EIT Food

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: