/ Food & Drink, Health

Health claims on food must be backed up

Woman making heart shape with her hands in front of her stomach

From now on, food companies must comply with the European Union’s list of approved and rejected health claims. Is this the end of probiotic yogurts claiming to help ‘healthy intestinal flora’?

As of today, many health and nutrition claims that you may be used to seeing on packaging or in advertising will be illegal.

Previously, companies could make claims about their foods and food supplements without providing evidence to back it up. Not anymore. Unless the evidence behind a claim has been independently assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and approved by the EU, a company will be breaking the law if  it uses the claim.

80% of health claims rejected

This is great news for consumers who have been wasting money on products promising benefits they can’t deliver. And it’s something we’ve long called for at Which?. Around 80% of claims that were submitted to the EFSA couldn’t be backed up – so it’s a significant move.

The belief that cranberry juice helps with a urinary infection is one of the claims that has been rejected because the evidence isn’t strong enough. Another is that glucosamine maintains joint mobility. Also rejected is the claim that taurine, found in some energy drinks, improves athletic performance.

Friendly bacteria – good for your tummy?

But perhaps the biggest surprise is that some claims about probiotics, often referred to as ‘friendly bacteria’, have been rejected by the EFSA. Previously, packaging on probiotic products had claimed that they help digestion, maintain a healthy gut and support your immune system.

The problem is that for many years manufacturers have been promoting these benefits and the public have trusted them. Many manufacturers have already removed their claims about the benefits of probiotics from packaging and advertising but it’ll take some time to re-educate those who were led by such claims.

Unsupported health claims are on the way out – a move that is long overdue. Will this give you more confidence in the products you buy?


I am delighted to learn that the benefits of probiotics have been rejected. What a pity manufacturers have make a fortune out of promoting these and other products with little or no proven efficacy. Unfortunately, what the EFSA has to say will not stop people wasting their money.

The most positive benefit is that it will be harder to make claims for the supposed benefit of new products that manufacturers dream up to part people from their money.

Sorry, I mean ‘supposed benefits’ rather than ‘benefits’ in the first line.

Lets hope the EU evaluates claims for other products – e.g. patent medicines (earlier conversation), if it isn’t already. It won’t stop people buying these products, as wavechange says, but nor should we and at least they are doing so with more knowledge. I’m all for giving us the freedom of choice, providing we are not misled.

BenJie says:
14 December 2012

Problem here is that EFSA scientists are going to look pretty stupid if research going forward shows that after all probiotics do confer benefits. What redress will companies have who have lost sales, sacked workers ? And what about consumers who have compromised their health by listening to EFSA and stop buying bio yogurts? Jury is out but EFSA had better have got their science right otherwise no one will ever trust nutrition scientists again. Presumably once EFSA has decreed that a claim is untrue then there can be no further research carried out because no funding committee would be able to approve it? Certainly nothing EU funded.

I would not grieve for the large companies selling probiotic yoghurts, etc. People are not going to stop buying the products just because there is no evidence to support the claims made for them.

History provides evidence of people taking all sorts of things because they were told that they promoted good health, when some were useless and others were dangerous. No-one is still consuming mercury compounds to promote good health but people are still endangering their health by swallowing certain food supplements.

Yes, some advice will prove wrong, but we cannot allow companies to continue profit on sales of products where there is little or no evidence to support their efficacy.

The approach is partly to see whether those making the claims have adequate evidence to support them. If they don’t, then the claims should be withdrawn. It should be the responsibility of a vendor to do the necessary verifiable work to show that their product is meeting what they say – otherwise they are misleading the purchaser. Whether in practice a product does prove to be beneficial in the way they suggest, but don’t substantiate, is not the point.

Talking of evidence, any chance that Which? has confirmed that cancer patients are not being misled by dietetic advice on high sugar foods providing a good source of energy for cancer patients?

hoppingpinkrabbit says:
15 December 2012

Still can’t get my head around the volume of pro-biotic dairy foods…just how many are found to be lactose intolerant each year is on the rise (possibly due to many other issues which I wont go into here). Why even if they did work, would adding these things to a dairy product be seen as a good idea?!

And as to if they work?
When pro-biotics were big about 10 years ago, I was eating a lot of dairy with no ill effect. I switched everything to become probiotic/prebiotic and added to that, two of those mini probiotic type drinks (one at breakfast, one in the evening). I’d have smoothies with the pre-biotic stuff in for breakfast, a lunch with a probiotic yoghurt, dinner would also follow with cottage cheese made with (you guessed it) and a yogurt. During the day I’d have tea and coffee with milk, some of which claimed to have pre or pro-biotic tendancies or both. I had been eating that proportion of dairy prior to this for years and with no ill effect.
It took me about a fortnight of eating like that before I had such chronic stomach pains, I landed myself in A&E after being unable to cope with the pain. They did blood tests and the only thing they found was a high volume of the bacteria. I stopped the stuff, problem gone.

Though the jury is out as to weather or not they even get as far as your stomach (let alone if the human body does anything with them but squirt them with acid and try hard to get rid of them) it does make me wonder when after my experience of taking them to the n-th degree.

Moderation is the key here!

Gillian Brennan says:
28 August 2013

I would like to support the benefits of a product called Bimuno which you referred to in an article on page 24 of September 2013’s magazine.

I suffer with Crone’s disease and when I get an attack I can suffer for days with diarrhoea which makes me tired and unable to get very much done, despite eating a healthy diet. A doctor at the hospital I attend suggested I might try Bimuno and it has been a life safer. Every time now that I get an attack or an infection I take a sachet or two of Bimuno and it gives me back the energy to copy with every day life.

I guess it dosent work for everyone as what works for one dosent always work for another but it definitely does work for me.

WHICH are taking this evaluation on health-claims on foods by EFSA as gospel.

The mistake here is that unless the evidence behind a claim has been independently assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and approved by the EU, a company will be breaking the law if it uses the claim, but does anyone question the scientific criteria used in rejecting these health claims.

There are many reasons why EFSA’s rejection rate for general function health claims has been so high, but the single most important one relates to the specific form of scientific substantiation employed by EFSA in its evaluation of claims. The Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation itself defines a health claim as “any claim that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food category, a food or one of its constituents and health”, requiring that the relationship is supported by “generally accepted scientific data”.
However, in its interpretation of this, EFSA requires that an unequivocal causal relationship between consumption and the claimed effect has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. This level of scientific certainty is simply not possible in the greater part of the field of nutritional science.
Something smells very fishy here, and I do not mean Omega 3’s, but the powerful influence of corporations who desire an exclusive market without competition for their wares.