Advertising on TV, in magazines and newspapers, on bus stops and billboards, and claims made on food packaging shout about the health benefits or the ‘healthiness’ of the food underneath the shiny exterior. But can ultra-processed foods claim to be healthy?
We know that the food industry isn’t there to keep us healthy. So how can they get away with it? What are these health claims? And can consumers really believe what’s being said on the label (or in advertising)?
Can you believe health claims?
Back in the good old days, before the UK voted to commit national suicide and it was still a member of one of the best clubs in the world (the European Union), the UK had a significant hand in developing and implementing a lot of legislation. One such piece was the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (the NHCR).
The NHCR is one of the many thousands of pieces of legislation which were carried over into UK law. Like a lot of food law, even though the detail is ridiculously complicated, the principle behind it is very simple. It’s about consumer protection. Food can only claim to be healthy, or have health benefits, if it complies with the rules set out in the law.
The trouble is, as with so many aspects of food law, it hasn’t quite worked out in the way it was intended.
So what are health claims?
There are lots of different types of claims. And in order to be used, the evidence for them needs to have been scientifically evaluated, and if there is sufficient evidence to support them, they then get risk managed to the extreme and authorised for use.
First up are nutrition claims which get used on a wide range of products. They can imply that, because a product contains something good (like fibre, or vitamin D, or protein), it’s healthy. Nutrition claims can also suggest that having less of something that is considered unhealthy (salt, or sugar, or fat) makes a product healthier (don’t even get me started on fat – check this out for the truth about the big fat myth).
There are rules around how much fibre, or vitamin D, or any other substance must be in the product before it can claim to be present. And rules around how much salt, or sugar, or fat has been cut back by before a product can say that it has been reduced. There are even claims for ‘light/lite’ and ‘no added’ (salt or sugar) – and yes, there are rules for these too.
Then there are health claims. These are a lot more detailed than nutrition claims, being linked to specific nutrients and stating exactly what the intended health benefit is. Most relate to vitamins, minerals, or omega-3 fatty acids, but there are also claims that can be used for a whole range of other things including different types of fibre, live yoghurt cultures, particular substances in olive oil (polyphenols), plant sterols, and even sugar free chewing gum.
Any product that makes a claim suggesting it has a beneficial effect on health must contain a minimum amount of the substance the claim is based on. For vitamins and minerals that is at least 15% of the nutrient reference value or NRV (sometimes labelled as RI or reference intake): other substances have levels set which are specific to the claims that are being made.
So the problem is…?
If only it was just the one problem.
The official wording of most of the health claims is pretty terrible, and a lot of them are most definitely not consumer friendly (largely as a result of the extreme risk management process claims have to go through before they can be used). For example, among the claims for vitamin B12 are: “contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism” (terribly dull) and “contributes to normal homocysteine metabolism” (point to the average consumer who understands that one).
So the first one gets changed by marketing departments into “helps boost your energy” (it doesn’t ‘boost’ it: it’s just part of the normal energy production process) while the second gets ignored. Even though that second claim is about something with real significance to health (high levels of homocysteine increase the risk of heart disease and stroke and you can help to reduce your homocysteine levels by taking vitamins B6, B12, folic acid, choline, and betaine).
So far, so just about okay.
But then there is that minimum amount rule – for vitamins and minerals 15% of the NRV. The NRV is set at a level that is supposed to prevent deficiency disease in generally healthy people. Unfortunately the UK has a notoriously poor diet and there are massive shortfalls in a wide range of vitamins and minerals (ie a large proportion of the population isn’t getting enough of a lot of the 13 vitamins and 17 minerals that are considered essential to health).
So 15% of the NRV really isn’t going to do anything useful in the way of health. But products can claim that they have health benefits even if the amount of nutrients contained within them are pathetically inadequate. Another win for the food industry which can save money by not putting lots of a nutrient in, but charge consumers more because the product claims to be healthy.
However, the biggest issue is that when the legislation was drafted there was a plan to include strict limitations on the kinds of foods that could make health claims. Any food that was considered ‘unhealthy’ because it was high in sugar, fat, or salt would be prohibited from making health claims. But, for one reason or another, nobody ever got around to actually putting that bit of legislation in place.
This means that stuff that should probably not be claiming to be healthy (because of the level of sugar or salt or fat in it) is making claims. Like a fruit flavoured yoghurt making claims for gut health (which it can do because there is a claim for that) but which also happens to contain 15% of your total daily recommended intake of sugar. Sugar does your gut health no good whatsoever (sugar does no good whatsoever to any aspect of health). Of course, we don’t actually need sugar in our diet as our body is clever enough to make all the glucose it needs from the food we eat, so why there is a recommended daily amount is something I will never understand!
Or a breakfast cereal which shouts about its wholegrain content and the nine vitamins and minerals it contains, but those vitamins and minerals are present at the absolute minimum that is needed in order to make the claim, and it contains more sugar than fibre (fibre is supposed to be one of the benefits of wholegrains and is yet another nutrient that the UK diet is seriously deficient in).
So should we believe them?
Sort of. Maybe. Sometimes.
If a claim, or a food looks appealing, read the label. Look at the nutrition panel (the table on the back of the pack that shows the breakdown of energy, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, protein, salt and any vitamins or minerals contained in the product). The panel should show the percentage of NRV (or RI) for each of these categories. Think about the percentage, particularly for energy, fat, carbohydrates, and salt – how high are they? And if the percentage is less than 50% for vitamins or minerals (preferably 100%) then any claims made on the pack for them are probably being made in a cynical effort to persuade consumers to part with their money.
Look at the ingredients list. The ingredients list on food packaging must be labelled in descending order of weight, so the largest quantities of any ingredient will be first. If sugar, or glucose syrup, or high fructose corn syrup, or dextrose, or corn dextrose, of glucose-fructose syrup, or fructose, or partially inverted refiner’s syrup, or any other name that suggests sugar is high on that list, put it back on the shelf. Because high levels of sugar in a product will probably negate any positive beneficial effects that any added nutrient is likely to have.
One more thing
Schedule 6 of The Food Labelling Regulations 1996 (UK legislation) stated that no food may claim, suggest or imply that it can treat, prevent or cure any human disease. Although those particular Regulations have been superseded by more recent legislation, that prohibition remains intact. Claims to treat, prevent or cure can only be made by medicines.
Will it change any time soon?
Well, now that the UK is surviving on sov-rin-tee and the myth of unicorns dancing on sunlit uplands, it is possible. But I suspect that amending the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation is not high on the list of priorities.
So keep reading the labels.