KEYWORDS: Nutrition and health claims, food labelling.
In this article we look at the burden of disease due to poor diets in the European Union (EU), drawing on recent analyses of the Global Burden of Disease Study as a way of gauging EU consumers’ actual, as opposed to perceived, health needs. Then we examine some findings of an EU-funded project with the overall aim of investigating the role of health-related claims and symbols in consumer behaviour (CLYMBOL). We look specifically at the CLYMBOL project’s survey of the prevalence of health-related claims found on food packaging and at what such claims signal to consumers about their health needs. We find that the prevalence of different types of health-related claim bears little relationship to consumers’ actual health needs. We conclude that the EU regulation on health and nutrition claims should pay more attention to the burden of disease due to poor diets in the EU, if it is to help protect the health of consumers.
Poor diets are responsible for a large proportion of the disease burden in Europe. This is mainly because dietary patterns that are common in Europe, such as diets high in saturated fats, trans fats, free sugars and salt and low in fibre, fruits and vegetables increase the risk of a number of a common non-communicable diseases – particularly cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke - but also type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.
Health and nutrition claims are commonly to be found on food packaging in Europe. An EU-funded project with the overall aim of investigating the role of health-related claims and symbols in consumer behaviour (CLYMBOL) has examined the prevalence of health and nutrition claims in five EU countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and the UK. It found that around 26% of foods carry at least one health or nutrition claim (1). Health and nutrition claims have the potential to help consumers make healthier food choices but for this potential to be realised they need to be both true and relevant to consumers’ health needs.
The EU regulation on nutrition and health claims (2) requires claims to be truthful. For example it states that: ‘In order to ensure that the claims made are truthful, it is necessary that the substance that is the subject of the claim is present in the final product in quantities that are sufficient, or that the substance is absent or present in suitably reduced quantities’. The regulation further considers that: ‘It is necessary to ensure that the substances for which a claim is made have been shown to have a beneficial nutritional or physiological effect’ through a process of scientific substantiation described in the regulation.
Although the regulation aims to ensure ‘a high level of protection for consumers and to facilitate their choice’, it is less clear about the need for claims to be relevant to consumers’ health needs. It is quite possible for a claim about a product to be true but irrelevant.
For example, under the regulation, it possible to claim that a product is high in chromium if it contains a sufficient amount (defined by the...