Nutrition & Health Claims: Considerations for Healthcare Professionals Working with Consumer Brands
11th August 2022
Written by Dr K O’Sullivan for HRS Communications
Since writing this article, some of this information has changed post-Brexit. Please refer to this article for updated information.
Brands have a significant influence over consumer health.
For example, 60% of British consumers now care more about how healthy their food or drinks are, compared to five years ago. All foods and drink marketed directly to consumers in the EU is governed by EU Regulations on Health and Nutrition Claims. Managed by EFSA, they aim to ensure consumers are not misled by untruthful claims. This enables consumers to be properly informed on the foods they choose.
Many health professionals work with the food industry developing consumer branded communications. So how do we as nutritionists and dietitians ensure that we are operating within the law? This blog gives an overview of what you need to be aware of.
There are two types of claims; nutrition and health claims. A “claim” can be written and spoken information. It can also be in the form of pictures, graphics and symbols. Brand names which make claims e.g. Antioxidant Smoothie are also covered by this legislation.
The regulations apply to all types of consumer communications including:
- Social media posts
- Consumer blog posts/articles
- Printed materials
- Radio and television adverts
- Advertorials etc.
Any statement that you, as a healthcare professional make to consumers/social media followers about the benefits or properties of a brand’s food or drink product could be a claim.
Are You Making a Nutrition Claim?
This is a statement, suggestion or implication that a brand has beneficial properties due to its nutrient profile. The Annex in the EFSA regulations lays out the definitions of what nutrition claims can be made (1). It covers claims such as light, natural, reduced fat, salt free, high in fibre, source of omega 3 fatty acids etc.
It also provides Reference Intakes (RI) for vitamins and minerals that must be used in food labelling (2). To make a source of micronutrient claim, the brand must contain at least 15% RI of that nutrient. For a high in claim the brand must provide 30% RI.
Are You Making a Health Claim?
Any statement, suggestion or implication that there is a relationship between health and a brand’s food or drink product is a health claim.
There are two types of health claims:
- Specific health claims
- General non-specific or vague health claims
A specific health claim links the brand to a specific health benefit. For example, yoghurt brand x is good for healthy bones. Only EFSA authorised claims which are listed in the EU register can be used (3). This register gives criteria that the brand needs to meet to be allowed to make the claim. If yoghurt X meets the 15% RI criteria to make a source of calcium claim then it can make the health claim, good for healthy bones. There are 100s of approved health claims for the role of nutrients in growth, development and function in the body, reduction of disease risk, and specifically in children’s’ development and health in the EU register and this is forever being updated as new claims get approval.
Vague or general claims say nothing specific but state, suggest or imply a health benefits e.g. the goodness of the sea, superfood, good for you etc. These claims can be made but you must use a nutrition or health claim to back them up. If the brand is able to make nutrition claims for vitamins then you can technically use this to support a vague superfood claim.
Remember you can only use approved health claims from the EU register. No claim for probiotics and gut health has been approved to date, so you cannot make a claim about this in consumer communications. Each claim has specific wording which is often not consumer friendly. You can make alterations to the wording but you must be careful not to alter the meaning of the authorised claim. For example, the authorised claim zinc contributes to normal cognitive function can be rewritten as zinc helps your brain work normally. However, paraphrasing as zinc supercharges your brain would be an over claim and is therefore not allowed.
Consider the EU Register as a cornucopia of potential brand positionings and benefits. You will be amazed by some of the claims that have been approved such as activated charcoal helps reduce excessive intestinal gas accumulation. The register also lists rejected claims like bran improves digestion. Claims pending approval are also listed – it’s a good resource for health writers to keep an eye on future trends.
Comparing the nutritional properties of foods can help the consumer to make informed choices. However, be aware that comparative claims are regulated by EFSA.
Claims such as Brand X contains half the sugar of Brand Y are subject to the following rules:
- The brand can only be compared to products in the same category of foods – you cannot compare the amount of calcium in a chocolate bar with a bowl of breakfast cereal
- The comparison must be against a range of foods rather than a single competing product
- The difference in the amounts must be stated and all comparisons must be based on the same amount of foods.
Claims which refer to the rate or amount of weight loss are not allowed. If you are using testimonials they must abide by the legislation. Again, remember it is not just the written text – images are also covered by the legislation. It is illegal to include before and after weight loss pictures since this implies that the product could induce a certain amount and rate of weight loss, which is prohibited!
Any beverage with an alcohol content greater than 1.2% cannot carry a health claim and can only bear nutrition claims that relate to reduced alcohol or energy levels.
Health claims that refer to the recommendations of an individual health professional are not acceptable. As a healthcare professional, you can promote a product but not directly endorse a health claim associated with it. The devil is in the details of the legislation and great care is needed. Brand communications that refer to the recommendations of an association are acceptable only if it is a health-related charity or national representative body.
Care is also needed when quoting scientific studies as again any brand message relating to it must be in line with approved health claim. Quoting research conducted by a university shows foods high in calcium is good for bones in brand communications would be allowed if it can be supported by an approved health claim.
Finally, all communications should be truthful, and not misleading or ambiguous. They shouldn’t encourage people to eat excessive amounts of food or imply that a balanced diet cannot provide sufficient nutrition.
Dietitians and nutritionists can help brands to promote their health credentials which help to educate consumers on the role of diet and health ultimately helping them to make healthier food choices. Consumers are protected by legislation and it is essential that all consumer communications abide by it. Failure to do so will result in prosecution! Here is a useful checklist to follow when working with brands:
- Does your audience include consumers? If yes, your communications must be EFSA compliant
- Are you making a nutrition or health claim?
- Is the nutrition claim allowed? Check the Annex
- Is the health claim allowed – check the EU Register
- Is the nutrition or health claim in accordance with the specific conditions of use?
- If vague health claims are being made, remember they have to be qualified by an accompanying approved nutrition or health claim.
- Don’t make amount or rate of weight loss claims
- Be careful about comparative claims
- Be very careful about scientific endorsement of brands
- REMEMBER text, images, graphs, testimonials and even brand names are covered by the regulations
- ALL forms of communication are covered
- DO NOT MAKE HEALTH CLAIMS THAT ARE NOT APPROVED EVEN IF THE SCIENCE IS STRONG!