Nutrition and health claims – misleading consumers?

* 3 min read
The purpose of food labelling is to help consumers make appropriate food choices. Labelling undeniably has a contribution to make in addressing how consumers choose foods to ensure their diet is healthy.

The influence of labelling on healthy food choices is the subject of increasing numbers of scientific research papers, both at national and international levels and it is evident from this research that current EU regulations on health claims are not fit for purpose because the regulations do not ensure that food making health claims on the label is ‘healthy’ in the terms that are promoted by governments, and others, to the average consumer.

The ability of consumers to select ‘healthier’ products is hampered by the way in which EU Regulations control the use of health claims. There are two aspects to this:

    1. The regulation creates a distinction between nutrition claims, which are statements about properties of the food, and health claims, which link a specific property of the food to a specific health benefit. Fat, sugar and calories fall within nutrition claims only and therefore no positive health message can be given based on levels of these nutrients. Products with an improved nutritional profile cannot generally therefore be described in labelling as ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’.
    2. Authorised health claims are linked, in the main, to the presence of an individual vitamin, mineral or other micro nutrient. If a product carries just one authorised claim it is also permitted to carry a reference to ‘general non-specific benefits of the food for overall good health or health-related well-being’ irrespective of any other aspects of its nutritional profile. In other words, food can be described as ‘healthy’ based on the presence of a single vitamin or mineral.

The consequence of this is that there an apparent disconnect between the public health message for healthier food choices which is focussed on calories, fat and sugar and the presentation of food as ‘healthy’ in labelling and other commercial communications under the current regulatory regime. The basis of this is the division created in the Regulation between ‘nutrition’ and ‘health’ claims. This distinction is not understood by consumers (*) and it is equally evident that it is not understood by government where public health messages referencing healthy food choices health are usually about nutrition. Many businesses also struggle with the distinction, putting themselves at risk of legal action by describing food with nutrition claims as ‘Healthy’.

One notable consequence of the Regulation is that products labelled as ‘healthy’ may in some cases actually be poor choices from a public health perspective. The Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation 1924/2006, which controls health claims in labelling and commercial communications in the EU, only envisaged claims being allowed on products that met overall nutritional criteria. The Regulation was intended to include ‘Nutrient Profiles’, which, in the words of the Commission ‘would aim to avoid a situation where nutrition or health claims mask the overall nutritional status of a food product, which could mislead consumers when trying to make healthy choices in the context of a balanced diet’. We have now passed the 10th anniversary of the date by which ‘nutrient profiles’ were intended to be implemented (10th January 2009) with no sign of their introduction. This would have prevented the situation where foods high in sugar, fat or calories could make a health claim in labelling.

If food labelling is to be an effective tool in helping consumers make better food choices for public health reasons the legal framework for health communication on food labels needs to be addressed to prevent consumers potentially being misled about which foods are healthy and to make labelling consistent with and supportive of health messages from government.

(*) Hodgkins, C.E.; Egan, B.; Peacock, M.; Klepacz, N.; Miklavec, K.; Pravst, I.; Pohar, J.; Gracia, A.; Groeppel-Klein, A.; Rayner, M.; Raats, M.M. Understanding How Consumers Categorise Health Related Claims on Foods: A Consumer-Derived Typology of Health-Related Claims. Nutrients 2019, 11, 539.