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Food claims are more about hype than health

Man looking at food label

Health claims on food can be a quick and easy way of scanning the shelves for healthier choices. But how do we know if we can trust foods claiming they’re good for your gut or help you have a healthy heart?

It’s always tempting to go for something promising a quick fix, but scientific assessments published last week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) showed that in many cases, these claims are more about hype than health.

Until recently there was no independent assessment of the burgeoning number of health and nutrition claims made on foods. It was up to local authority trading standards officers to take on the multi-nationals if they had time among their many other responsibilities.

That’s why we campaigned for the onus to be shifted and we now have EU legislation on health and nutrition claims that requires them to be independently assessed.

No science to back up food claims

Consequently, thousands of claims have been sent to EFSA for assessment. And the batch last week is typical of what they’ve been finding – just one in five had the science to back up what they claimed.

From green tea to royal jelly, a vast number of claims are being rejected. Perhaps most surprising (given the way they’re promoted) are the numerous probiotic yogurts, including some household names.

Annoying, but quite straightforward you might think – they just need to come off the market. But sadly, no. The scientific assessment is just the first part of the process.

The accepted and rejected claims then have to go on to an official list agreed by the European Commission and EU governments. But even that’s getting repeatedly delayed and some companies are being given more time to have another go at substantiating their claims.

And in the meantime, many of us are paying a premium for products on the basis of marketing claims which appear to be largely fictional.

Too good to be true?

I’m all for a fair process, but it’s about time regulators started thinking about what’s fair for shoppers. Until they enforce the legislation properly, we’re still being left in the dark, throwing away our money on claims that might sound very scientific but fall apart once they are given some independent scrutiny.

Some claims, of course, are supported by science – such as many made about vitamins and minerals and the cholesterol-lowering margarines. But it seems that, for the moment, it’s best to assume that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Comments
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This problem seems to be on the increase, no doubt because many people believe what they are told by manufacturers. The only solution likely to work is to fine companies that repeatedly make unsubstantiated claims and to escalate the fines if there are further claims that are similar. The fines need to be high enough to have an effect.

Companies that deliberately make unsubstantiated claims need to receive negative publicity. That seems to be working with companies that produce breakfast cereals loaded with sugar.

There is a lot to be said for independent testing.