'Vague' health benefit claims to be combated with approval list

Claims of health benefits for many fresh fruit and vegetable products are being deemed "too vague" to be granted approval by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

But a conference at Stockbridge Technology Centre last week heard that the EFSA plans to publish a list of generally-approved health claims for substances such as vitamins and minerals that could be used by anyone marketing produce that contained them.

The EFSA began a review of health claims for foods in 2008 to regulate the use of statements such as "heart-healthy" and "cholesterol-lowering". Only health claims approved by the EFSA, on the basis that they can be backed by accepted scientific evidence, will be allowed in marketing.

Sophia Johansson, senior regulatory adviser at Leatherhead Food Research, explained that the regulations cover both nutrition and health claims. A nutrition claim states or implies that a food contains a particular substance - such as "contains calcium". A health claim is one that states or implies that a relationship exists between the food and a particular health benefit - such as "contains calcium, which is good for healthy bones".

Health claims are being considered by the EFSA in three categories. The critical one for the fruit and vegetables industry is article 13.1, which applies to general claims for nutrients affecting growth, development and function, physiology and behaviour or slimming and weight loss.

This is the category for which the EFSA will be publishing a "positive list" of acceptable claims and statements, due in October.

The authority will also consider claims based on new or commercially-sensitive data or claims based on effects on the reduction of disease risks or on children's health. In all these cases a claim must be backed by scientific evidence, including the results of human trials, that prove the food causes the effect claimed.

The regulations cover health claims made on packaging, in promotional material and even on restaurant menus. They do not affect journalists writing about food or health professionals advising patients. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency will enforce the rules and be the first point of contact for advice about making a claim.

"Submitting your own claim for a product is difficult, time consuming and expensive for small companies," said Nigel Baldwin, director of scientific and regulatory consultancy Cantox. "The good news is that you will be able to use claims for substances that are already accepted onto the positive list."

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