Dr Rosemary Stanton, nutritionist, and Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, give us the skinny on health claims made by the food industry….
‘Reduces your cholesterol absorption!’ ‘With probiotics to improve digestion!’ ‘Good for heart health!’ While health claims like these scream from the supermarket shelves, consumers may be surprised to learn that no one currently checks these claims and, as a result, food manufacturers may feel no obligation to substantiate them. In fact under the current transitional food labelling regime in place since 2002, health claims are not even meant to appear on packaging.
After decades of discussion about the issue, the topic of health claims has risen again as industry, public health and consumer groups attempt to navigate a path between commercial imperatives and health.
From a commercial perspective, health claims are a potent marketing tool. More than ever, today’s consumers are extremely health conscious. Food companies know this, that’s why we’ve seen the proliferation of nutrition claims on products even when they seem nonsensical – such as lollies labelled as ‘99% fat free’. Health claims, which are even more powerful, are the next phase in this marketing offensive – not only do these products contain (or lack) some nutrient or other, they’re also supposedly good for your health!
But from a health perspective, many claims are often used to market highly processed products that shouldn’t be consumed in excess. Overconsumption of is a key driver of our record-breaking levels of obesity in Australia.
And from a consumer protection perspective, the average shopper is already bombarded with enough information and deserves to have certainty that any health claims are supported by robust, scientific evidence.
Initially, public health groups did not want any health claims on food packaging. Since this discussion first began some 10-12 years ago, there has been no evidence that health claims have done anything to curb the huge growth in diet-related chronic disease.
Several options have been discussed for health claims. These include independent regulation of claims, favoured by those in the public health sector. Sections of the powerful food industry prefer self-regulation, even though previous attempts to use this method for regulating claims about low fat foods failed. Under the current draft standard, 115 pre-approved claims, for which there is reasonable evidence of accuracy, have been listed and can be used without substantiation. However, the food industry wants more discussion on additional health claims. These claims are likely to be based on emerging evidence and health groups are keen that the government regulator substantiates these claims before they are used on packaging.
The situation in Europe is a useful model. Claims have to go through an evaluation as part of the approval process by the European Food Safety Authority. A recent report notes that evidence was only available to approve 222 of the more than 2,700 claims put forward. Rejections are based on insufficient evidence.
At the big end of food town however, members of the lobby group, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, claim this approach is too expensive. Instead they want to market products with health claims and provide evidence about their veracity if they’re queried. But this ‘act now, apologise later’ approach is a false economy and an approach that may favour the bigger brands. And even if a successful challenge is made against a health claim that turns out to be false or exaggerated, the message would already be out there. It then becomes difficult to change the impression created by marketing around such claims.
The AFGC’s argument is that it would be too expensive for companies to alter their packaging to remove the claims if it was found that they did not meet the regulator’s assessment. That’s a good argument supporting the cost-effectiveness and prudence in a process to substantiate new health claims first and then to develop the packaging statements with confidence. The AFGC represents only around 10% of food companies, the other 90% are smaller manufacturers who are often ignorant of what is required and find it difficult to compete with the ‘big boys’. If the government regulator makes the assessment to test the veracity of a health claim prior to a product hitting the shelves, the playing field is levelled for all manufacturers and producers. Such a process is independent, fair and open to all, including the many small food businesses that offer employment to many Australians.
Australians’ confidence in food labelling is at stake here. Exaggerated or false claims on food labels would ultimately undermine consumers’ trust in our food industry.