Health claims: looking beyond the label

What was the issue?

An increasing number of foods sold in the EU bear nutrition and health claims. A nutrition claim states or suggests that a food has beneficial nutritional properties, such as “low fat”, “no added sugar” and “high in fibre”. A health claim is any statement on labels, advertising or other marketing products that health benefits can result from consuming a given food.

In December 2006 EU decision-makers adopted a Regulation on the use of nutrition and health claims for foods which lays down harmonised EU-wide rules for the use of health or nutritional claims on foodstuffs. For the first time, harmonised rules were laid down across the EU for the use of nutrition claims such as “low fat” and “high fibre” or health claims such as “reduces blood cholesterol”.

The European Commission was required to draw up a list of permitted health claims that refer to: “general functions” of the body, psychological and behavioural functions, and weight management; and those relating to disease risk reduction, and child development and health. EFSA was asked to provide scientific advice to support this process.

What did EFSA do?

Between 2008 and 2011 EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA Panel) assessed 3,000 food-related health claims to determine whether they were supported by sound scientific evidence. These approved claims can help European consumers to make more informed choices about their diet. EFSA will continue to evaluate claims from industry and re-evaluate some general function claims.

Timeline of publications of EFSA’s general function evaluations:

  • 1 October 2009, 521 claims addressed in 94 opinions
  • 25 February 2010, 416 claims covered in 31 opinions
  • 19 October 2010, 808 claims, addressed in 75 opinions
  • 8 April 2011, 442 claims, addressed in 63 opinions
  • 30 June 2011, 536 claims, addressed in 73 opinions
  • 28 July 2011, 35 claims addressed in 5 opinions

The NDA Panel has also adopted 27 scientific opinions on “new function” claims (those based on newly developed scientific evidence and/or for which protection of proprietary data is requested) and 75 opinions on claims relating to disease risk reduction and child development or health.

Throughout the process the Authority has engaged regularly with stakeholders to explain and clarify the process followed by the NDA Panel in the evaluation of claims, and has provided advice through guidance, briefing documents and the holding of scientific meetings.

What was the impact?

EFSA’s work is helping to ensure that health claims used in food labelling and advertising in the EU are clear and substantiated by scientific evidence, and that European consumers are protected from misleading or potentially harmful claims.