/ Food & Drink, Health

Is this finally the end of misleading healthy food claims?

Food and drink manufacturers will soon be required to use hard evidence, not just clever marketing to promote the health benefits of their products. Would you like to choose healthy foods based on fact, not fiction?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could take the health claims printed on the food you buy at face value?

Rather than having to carefully examine the ingredients and nutritional information, you could just have confidence that what it said was true and you weren’t just pouring money down the drain.

Well, we’re now a lot closer to that nirvana. EU Member States voted yesterday to adopt a list of scientifically proven health claims on food and drinks. The list sets out the wording that can be used and the conditions that food companies must meet if they want to use a particular claim.

Approved claims include ‘calcium is needed for the maintenance of healthy bones’ and ‘reduced consumption of sodium contributes to the maintenance of normal blood pressure’.

This list of health claims will now go to the European Parliament to scrutinise and then, once published, manufacturers will have six months to comply.

Less hype, more health please

There will also be a list of rejected health claims. This is something we’ve be campaigning on for many years here at Which? and it’s been frustratingly slow to get to this point.

In 2006, the EU passed regulation to make sure that all food health claims were independently assessed by the European Food Safety Authority to be scientifically proven. The science behind over 4000 health claims were assessed, and at last we have a list.

Incredibly, around 80% of the claims submitted couldn’t be backed up. This includes claims about green tea maintaining normal blood pressure, royal jelly contributing to a stronger immune system, glucosamine maintaining joints, and taurine (in some energy drinks) improving mental performance.

However, the list isn’t quite complete. Some health claims are still being debated. For example, probiotic producers weren’t able to show that they had the science to back them up, but have been given extra time to resubmit for another try.

Having a healthy ingredient isn’t enough

Another crucial aspect that still has to be sorted out is working out how ‘healthy’ a food has to be to make a health claim.

The Regulation on Health and Nutrition Claims requires maximum levels of fat, sugar and salt to be set, so that products containing one healthy ingredient don’t end up being bad for you. But this is something else that has become hugely controversial and it is unclear when the EU will ever agree on this.

So, overall, yesterday’s vote was very significant and long overdue. While there are still several aspects to be sorted out, next time we are taken in by a food’s healthy claim, it may turn out that it’s actually telling the truth. Here’s hoping.

Profile photo of wavechange

This is great news, and something that is long overdue. Thanks Sue.

I’m sure that there will be a lot of problems regarding what constitutes good scientific evidence, but at least the worst of the bogus claims can be dealt with.

Profile photo of wavechange

The linked article states: ‘The government must now also make sure products that are high in fat, sugar or salt can’t claim to be healthy simply because they contain one healthy ingredient.’

That’s great, but does it mean that those spreads that claim to decrease cholesterol should not be promoted as healthy products? I hope so because most of us eat far more fat than we need to, without consuming tubs of grease. If you want the cholesterol-decreasing ingredients (assuming their claims are substantiate) they are available in products (e.g. yoghurt) that are not high in fat, salt or sugar.

max00d says:
6 December 2011

This is still very much a case of the blind leading the blind (or the greedy leading the downright immoral). I’m not sure about you but I really don’t trust a group of politicians, who know nothing about nutrition and the underlying biological processes, telling me what is and is not a ‘…scientifically proven health claim’. Furthermore, it has become evident that the nutritional guidelines that have been recommended by various government agencies have been nothing short of a random experiment, that has been driven primarily by monetary greed, with the general public as the guinea pigs. I am pointing at the low fat high carb proponents and fear that further generalizations such as “reduced consumption of saturated fat contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels” (what exactly does this mean!!??) do nothing but add fuel to a very misguided fire. Until there is substantial funding and independent research then the ‘..scientifically proven claims’ will continue to come from studies funded by companies that are only interested in selling more of their ‘health promoting’ products. This certainly becomes a little more interesting when noted that a PR representative of the Unilever-made Flora Proactiv products commented that “We absolutely agree that simply lowering cholesterol without making wider positive changes to one’s diet and lifestyle will not make a significant positive health impact.”

Profile photo of wavechange

Politicians are not renowned for their knowledge of biochemistry so their view is not useful, though if they can help promote a healthy diet and lifestyle they could help the nation’s health.

Scientific studies should be either carried out independently or use made of earlier peer reviewed scientific papers and reviews.

The information about Flora Proactive is carefully written, referring to the importance of a healthy lifestyle, but the consumer is not warned about the high fat content of the product.

Internet John says:
7 December 2011

In my experience there is no consistency in the foods, one batch is okay, another isn’t fit to give to a dog. When I complain I get a “we’re very sorry” letter. They are so very sorry that they give me a couple of vouchers to buy more of the Horrid Stuff that I just shoved in the postbox.
I’ve had hour long phone calls with Trading Standards Officers who told me how ‘reputable’ these companies are, which is easier than actually investigating the complaint.
And when they do, they make it worse.
One such complaint was about Babyfood. It was superdrug that were selling it. They had it on a high shelf and there was a heater directly above that was belting out heat to the entire store.
So the jars were warming all day, then cooling at night.

Babyfood needs to be stored right.
I informed Trading Standards and expected a quick formality of perhaps the guy going around there, having a quick word with the Manager and the jars would get moved to a different place in the store at least. It would be better the advice coming from him than a shopper.

The Trading Standards Guy rang me back, said he’d been round there, examined where the food was, talked to the Manager and told him that there was absolutely nothing wrong with where the food was being placed. And then told me about how he’d been to the factory once and how they’d sterilised everything.

What had that got to do with the baby food being cooked and cooled every day ?
Not much.

Profile photo of oliver s

This campaign is very much a double edged sword and is very different from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fishfight. There are many plants and herbs that have been used for centuries and are EMPIRICALLY known to have beneficial effects. e.g. Milk Thistle is good as a detox for liver .I used to buy it regularly from Healthspan. Its an important anti-oxidant to help against the effects of routine medication . Since this legislation came in, the price per effective mg of ingredient has gone up fivefold.

I used to buy Echinacea combined with licorice extract having read an article some time ago in The Sunday Times that the licorice helped the efficacy. To PROVE that scientifically is ludicrously expensive. Result, product no longer available but my wife and I had tried it and felt that it had worked. It accelerated recovery from routine colds.

And there is James Wong , now regularly getting on TV promoting herbal remedies for all sorts of things. e,g, his cold aid

Is publishing this now in effect illegal? If not, why not? I am actually very supportive of James Wong and wish he had a higher profile in these debates- perhaps Which could get his views

I am all for preventing spurious and misleading claims but surely legislation existed to counter that- misleading advertising. There is so much we do not know and the big drug companies have scientists crawling all over rainforests and obscure parts of the world and in the sea to find components which can only be properly analysed for the first time due to modern DNA technology. Many of these plants are known to have useful effects by Aboriginal and similar tribes. It is tapping their knowledge.

In the meantime, the public is deprived now by heavy handed EU legislation from buying things that they want . When Boots and their like sell baby sleep aids with chamomile extract which would require the Hydron collider to find it, they are guilty of misleading advertising and should be prosecuted but this EU ruling has actually gone far further and damaged a lot of eco friendly businesses as well as depriving consumers of things they want.

Just what does Green Tea do or not do? what does Glucosamine do or not do?

DennisS says:
15 December 2011

Just considering a) that it is just the doubtful healthy claims which will be outlawed, and b) that the above responses are quite typical, I see that this will make little difference. The real threat ought to be to homeopathy, which is well known to be a development of sympathetic magic (as used by witch doctors). People will continue to believe in what they fancy, and the claims will be spread virally (modern terminology for “jungle telegraph”). How so many people are taken in by the unsubstantiated claims just mystifies me. Maybe the reason is the one I suffer from, which is “I heard about “x” and ought to try this just in case it might do me some good”. At least we will be spared some of the outrageous advertising, and can save some money to pay for incraesing energy bills.

Norman Naylor says:
17 December 2011

This is a move to be welcomed and is long overdue. But there are many other product groups that need the same kind of attention, not the least of which are those relating to personal care / cosmetics. Some of the claims for them are outrageously overstated and misleading in my opinion, many health-related – toothpastes, skincare, haircare and so on. I strongly suspect that as with health foods, if challenged the manufacturers would be hard-pressed produce to the evidence needed to valdate their claims.


I have heard the health claim “water rehydrates the body” was dismissed by EFSA along with numerous other facts! In principle good legislation but yet again EU got it wrong; applying a pharmaceutical model of evidence to foods – legislators trying to put square pegs in round holes. Note that a herbal medicine can use ‘traditional use’ data and obtain a licence to treat/cure; food cannot e.g. peppermint (if you pay for a licence it “treats digestive complaints; dyspepsia, flatulence & stomach cramps” yet if you eat peppermint apparently it doesn’t have the same effect – or at least you can’t claim so; same for echinacea for colds/flu). Why? because foods/supplements are for healthy people (not their original intention), medicines are for sick people; yet this regulation tries to put food in the pharmaceutical ‘box’ – it will never fit! If Westerners ate a healthy diet everyday then maybe their intentions would make logical/common sense; the fact is most do not even manage the minimum ‘5-a-day’ and therefore require additional foods/supplements (as well as a better nutritional education) to help them prevent deficiencies (note resurgence of rickets & scurvy in the modern West!!!). Now companies have the answer i.e. eat artificially constructed ‘spreads’ with added sterols to keep your cholesterol low instead of eating legumes & other vegetables containing phytosterols & excercise, lol! Glucosamine is the active ingredient in two licensed (paid for) medicines in the UK; the evidence used for the medicine claim couldn’t be used for foods claiming ‘joint health maintenance’ because it was performed on unhealthy individuals (i.e. with arthritis). Who has the funds to run trials showing that non-patentable foods work on ‘healthy’ people? If it is for the benefit of the tax-paying public surely the government should (the food standards agency I note no longer exists! …or perhaps Which!?). The “antioxidant” food claim (which can be validated by lab testing ORAC value & by very definition means ‘mitigates free radical damage’) was rejected even though EFSA recognise foods have antioxidant properties they didn’t have the level of evidence to show that stopping free radicals relates to physiological activity, however such claims e.g. ‘protecting cells from premature aging’ are permitted on cosmetics (product that do not reach the digestive system for absorption)! The list goes on and the consumer looses out – this isn’t education it is red tape & bureaucracy. There is a reason certain foods are eaten together and/or have substantial evidence of ‘traditional’ use; it’s because they work. Note cosmetics don’t have such restrictions (e.g. antioxidants for premature aging are rife), yet it is fact the epithelial tissue in the digestive tract absorbs nutrients far better than our external epithelial layer (the skin). BTW Oliver – I agree with you; but if the next ‘miracle cure’ plant was found being eaten in say darkest Peru, WE couldn’t eat it in the UK because of EU Novel food Regs, which prohibit anything without at least 15 years EU use! However if a company paid to extract that plant’s specific ‘active component’ it may be patentable for a time/profitable to them as a drug (not a food) – the traditional holistic (whole greater than sum of parts) principle is being wiped out by £££ making machines… who fund our government, who legislate, which benefits these multi-billion £ companies, who provide more £ to our government…