A summary of the Academy of Nutrition Sciences’ Position Paper:   

13th January 2023
Written by HRS Communications

Why do health professionals need to know about the nutrition and health claims regulation?

The Academy of Nutrition Sciences has recently published a Position Paper which discusses the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) and why health professionals need to know about it. The aim of the paper is to help non-specialists understand the framework in place to protect the public as well as identifying a few problem areas before going on to make further recommendations. 

But first let’s clarify, what is the Academy of Nutrition Sciences? Established in 2019, it is a collaboration between the Association for Nutrition (AfN), the British Dietetic Association (DBA), the British Nutrition Foundation and the Nutrition Society, whose aim is to share a collective voice to debunk misinformation. 

The NHCR was first published by the European Union (EU) in 2006 but has since been adopted for use in Great Britain (GB) following BREXIT. It covers all claims about food and drink products, ensuring that all are evidence based, thus managing the safety of consumers. So why do health care professionals need to know about health claims legislation? Dietitians and nutritionists, along with others, are well placed to educate consumers on the evidence-based science backing the health benefits of food as well as disease risk, helping them to make healthier dietary choices. Moreover they’re in the position to explain the rigorous process involved in qualifying a health claim to reassure the public.  

Within these regulations, Article 12(c) outlines what health professionals can and can’t say/do in within commercial ‘marketing’ communications. Article 12(c) ‘prohibits health claims that make reference to recommendations of individual doctors or health professionals (or to an association other than a national association of medical, nutrition or dietetic professionals or a health‐related charity)’. Commercial communications include any form of product labelling on packaging to be delivered to the final consumer, product specific advertising, promotional features in print media, in-store promotions and food business social media. 

Conversely, healthcare professionals are authorised to recommend non-commercial recommendations; dietary guidelines issued by public health authorities (e.g. advice on eating five portions of fruit and veg per day). Healthcare professionals are also able to give patients/ clients information from scientific publications (i.e. textbooks and lectures) as well as information on specific products during one-one consultations. Lastly they can deliver information in a ‘business to business’ capacity. This includes content such as press releases brochures or websites, but the recipient must be a business, healthcare professional or journalist, but not the general public. The reason behind these restrictions is to stop consumers from being misled in any way. In fact, here at HRS we specialise in nutrition and health claims and can support professionals and brands with compliance. 

The Position Paper outlines a few areas in need of consideration. Firstly it explains that not enough time is spent learning the specifics of said health claims legislation. Dietitians and nutritionists tend to receive training on food and drink regulations, but levels of detail vary between courses, and other health professional such as doctors and nurses, as well as those less directly involved in the food and drink industry, are less likely to have received such in-depth training so may not understand the complexities and associated nuances.  

The article then goes on to discuss a controversial statement present in the GB regulations: ‘celebrity endorsements do not appear to fall within the scope of the prohibition in Article 12(c) (unless the celebrity is a doctor or health professional)’. This means celebrities and influencers, who have little or no professional training, are able to make health claims through advertising and marketing materials, whilst nutritionists and dietitians who have accredited training and are governed by policies and Codes of Practice, are not. Not a very level playing field. This has the potential to spread misinformation and unsafe claims, completely undermining the principles of the NHCR; which is to provide consumers with evidenced based statements and protect them from those that have limited or no scientific validity. 

More and more nutritionists and dietitians are now working in the commercial setting, such as in the food industry, and want to refer to authorised health claims but this Position Paper highlights the fact that many of these professionals have varying interpretations of Article 12(c) and are therefore not sure about what they can and can’t do, flagging the need for more clarification in training. 

This Position Paper goes on to discuss the strengths of the NHCR, recognising the benefits of having each claim rigorously analysed and assessed by independent scientists. However, the paper also notes the challenges of testing these claims, such as identifying a ‘healthy’ population, setting biomarkers to measure outcomes and so on. It describes how some consumers find the wording of health claims unclear so find selecting food to improve their health challenging. Some are sceptical about the claims, while others embrace them but assume the products has additional health benefits beyond those scientifically proven. 

The paper concludes with some recommendations: 

  1. There needs to be a clear consensus developed on what a ‘healthy’ population is when investigating health claims as well as defining set biomarkers for measuring outcomes. 
  1. There is also a need to improve consumer understanding of claims by promoting the use of clearer language.  
  1. Ensure accreditation of nutrition and dietetic courses includes a sufficient understating of health claims, as well as the provision of enough CPD opportunities for other health care professionals to receive adequate training in the area. 
  1. Finally the paper calls for a review of Article 12(c) to clarify understanding as well as champion the role of qualified nutrition professionals and review the unacceptable role of unqualified celebrities and social media influencers. 

Despite the positive impacts of this legislation it can bring confusion and uncertainty for the public as well as healthcare professionals and businesses wanting to make a claim. For further support, make sure to get in touch with us at HRS and don’t miss our upcoming webinar series later in the year!  

Reference: 

STANNER, S., ASHWELL, M. & WILLIAMS, C. M. 2022. Why do health professionals need to know about the nutrition and health claims regulation? Summary of an Academy of Nutrition Sciences’ Position Paper. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics

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