The expression “health claim” may not immediately mean something to all of us, but as consumers we are all confronted with exactly these “health-related promises” in everyday life. “Rich in vitamin C”, “for healthy hair growth” or “to relieve colds” are just a few examples of the large number of health claims that are used for marketing purposes by many companies. Health claims have undergone a lot of change in the last few decades because they were initially not regulated and are now the only way to convey the positive health properties of a product.
The new, stricter regulation of health claims should enable consumers to make informed decisions about their diet without falling victim to the deceptive marketing practices that were previously common. The new regulations, which we initially welcomed, have unfortunately also brought with them new weak points, which is why health claims continue to be criticized. We would like to explain in more detail in this article what exactly these health claims actually are, how they are regulated and why you should continue to handle them carefully.
What are health claims?
A health claim is defined as a statement that refers to the health benefits or effects of a food. Health claims are used to tell consumers that a particular food may have positive effects on their health. These statements can relate to various aspects of human health, such as: B. the nutrient content, a contribution to weight loss, supporting the immune system, preventing illness or promoting healthy digestion.
Health claims can be found in product advertising as well as on the packaging of food and products. The health claims are intended to encourage consumers to purchase certain products and choose them over others by implying that consumption of these foods/products will result in health benefits. There are different types of health claims, which we would like to briefly explain.
Different types of health claims
General health claims
General health claims refer to the basic effect of a specific nutrient group or food on maintaining health or a specific body function.
An example of such a health claim would be: “Calcium is important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth.”
Specific health claims
Specific health claims refer to more precisely defined, health-related effects of a food or nutrient on our health or our body. They must be scientifically proven and approved by a competent authority.
An example of a specific health claim is: “Regular consumption of omega-3 fatty acids helps maintain normal blood pressure.”
Reduced risk of disease health claims
This type of health claim refers to the role of a food or nutrient in reducing the risk of a particular disease or health condition. This type of health claim in particular requires strong scientific evidence and approval from the responsible authorities.
An example of such a health claim is: “A diet rich in fiber can reduce the risk of heart disease.”
At first it all seems very sensible - strict regulation of such health promises is ultimately right and important.
So to what extent are the health claims criticized?
From the rain in the eaves
Of course, this headline is formulated in a somewhat sensational way and we don't want to demonize health claims in any way, but there is some truth at the core of the statement. In the past, everything that was not expressly forbidden was permitted in food law. As a result, companies often made misleading or exaggerated claims about the health benefits of their products without having or being able to provide scientifically based evidence. This legitimately led to consumer confusion, lack of transparency and deception.
In order to counteract this situation, the legal framework for health claims has been significantly tightened in recent years. In principle, it is of course commendable that the potpourri of health claims, some of which were not true and not scientifically based, was put to an end - however, the new strictness of the regulation of health claims has also brought with it new problems.
The regulation of health claims – as of today
In response to the lack of regulation in recent decades, all health-related claims that are not expressly permitted are now banned. This means that a food manufacturer not only has to provide scientific evidence in order to be able to make a health claim, but it also has to be officially recognized and registered. Apparently healthy things may not be presented as such if they have not been registered as an official health claim. The problem behind this is self-explanatory.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) plays an essential role in the approval of health claims. It evaluates the scientific evidence behind health claims and decides whether a specific health claim is approved or not. Only claims that have been reviewed and approved by EFSA may be used by companies to express how their products are healthy or beneficial for our health. These rules are intended to ensure that consumers cannot be deceived by misleading or scientifically unfounded statements. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and new gray areas and problems have arisen with this stricter regulation.
Criticism of health claims
The ban on health claims that are not expressly permitted and registered has rightly attracted some criticism. Many companies and even scientists argue that the new regulations represent excessive control and censorship of knowledge. The fact that even companies that can provide scientifically based evidence of the health benefits of their products are still prevented from sharing this information with consumers in the absence of a health claim is concerning.
The assessment of health claims by EFSA is a time-consuming process. A scientific examination and approval of a health claim can take months or even years and also requires that a company has the financial resources to be able to “serve out” this time or to have a cost-intensive study carried out that speeds up the approval of the health claim . On the one hand, this means that many companies have to wait a long time before they can advertise the health benefits they advertise and, on the other hand, it also means that large companies with a lot of capital are at an advantage.
Lobbying cannot be ruled out when issuing health claims. Large companies that have a financial interest in making certain statements about their products can influence the decision-making processes and criteria for issuing health claims. Influencing political figures or EFSA decision-makers to prioritize certain health claims or promote one's own interests is just one possible example of this.
Another aspect of lobbying in connection with health claims concerns the interaction between industry and science. It is no secret that companies that can finance scientific studies can also influence them to obtain the results that are desirable and thus help their products achieve a health claim more quickly. This can lead to certain health claims being supported and approved, even though the scientific evidence may not be strong enough.
Another point of criticism is that the current system ultimately does not provide clear guidance for consumers. By limiting the number of permissible health claims, it can be difficult to distinguish between products that actually offer health benefits and those that may have health claims but may be inferior in quality or effectiveness. Health claims alone do not ensure that consumers can feel safe and know what information they can trust.
But what would a possible solution to this problem look like?
Health claims should be revolutionized
The question remains whether the current system actually protects the best interests of consumers or whether bureaucracy and restrictions prevail. There are arguments that consumers should be able to freely access information about the health effects of food, as long as that information is scientifically based. This would allow consumers to make their own decisions without being dependent on predetermined health claims.
Another alternative would be to relax the requirements for the use of health claims, but maintain clear guidelines and basic monitoring to prevent misleading or false statements. This could allow companies to communicate the health benefits of their products, as long as they do so in a responsible and accountable manner. In addition to regulating health claims, EFSA should also take greater responsibility for demonstrating transparency and honesty in the assessment and awarding of health claims.
It remains to be noted that health claims are a complex topic in the context of nutrition. The ban on unauthorized statements is intended to protect consumers from misleading advertising. However, this also leads to a restriction in the flow of information, a lot of bureaucracy, potential lobbying and uncertainty among consumers.
A balanced solution that ensures consumer protection against deception while allowing appropriate freedom of information and counteracting lobbying could be a promising way to address the current challenges in dealing with health claims. Likewise, other scientific aspects such as bioavailability and human biochemistry should also be included to enable consumers to make a balanced assessment of the health benefits of a product.
How should I deal with health claims as a consumer?
In practice, we as consumers should be critical when considering health claims and not blindly trust advertising claims, just as we should not view a health claim as a guarantee of a healthy food.
It is advisable to check food labels and ingredient lists to make informed decisions. Ultimately, the high quality of the ingredients, the bioavailability and nutrient density of foods and supplements are crucial factors that are only taken into account to a very limited extent when issuing health claims. That's why BE THE CHANGE relies on the conception of all our products according to human biochemistry, high bioavailability and organic ingredients from regenerative agriculture. We can prove the high quality and health of our products through various certificates .
It makes sense for us as consumers to consult independent sources such as scientific studies or consumer organizations to obtain information about the potential health benefits of certain foods or nutrients, even if they do not have official health claims.
In general, we should take advantage of the opportunity to eat a balanced and varied diet based on fresh, minimally processed and organic foods. It is important to be aware that individual foods or dietary supplements with a health claim alone cannot work miracles and that a healthy diet and lifestyle are crucial for our health.
The regulation of health claims in the context of nutrition is a complex issue that must strike a balance between consumer protection, a look beyond the horizon and greater freedom of information.