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Lost in translation: Parlez-vous health claims?

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn+

09-Apr-2014
Last updated on 09-Apr-2014 at 17:38 GMT

Health claims are being lost in language and cultural translation, warns an EU food law advisor
Health claims are being lost in language and cultural translation, warns an EU food law advisor

Cross-border communication must be provided to combat the confusion caused by the 24 subtly different language versions of EU-approved health claims, as well as countless other cultural nuances, according to an EU food law expert. 

Izabela Blaszkiewicz, associate and EU regulatory affairs advisor for the law firm Hogan Lovells, told audiences at the 11th International Workshop  on Nutrition & Health Claims Europe in Brussels that uniform regulation existed only in theory, while the reality was much more fragmented.

“In theory we have one regulation. It should be something that fits all. But in reality there are 24 different language versions. Apart from that you have something like 28 different ‘consumer cultures’,” she said.

In some cases health links approved under the 2006 European Union nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) had been translated to mean different things from the original English versions, sometimes going beyond the approved claims. This led to a situation where claims were not technically permitted in the EU, even though some have been translated by the national authorities.

Cross-border interpretation

Blaszkiewicz used the “striking” example of ‘oxidative stress’, which in Spanish was translated as ‘daño oxidativo’, meaning ‘oxidative damage’, something which was not actually backed by the original European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion.

“It’s funny to see that," she told NutraIngredients. "Why is this permitted in Spanish and not in English?” 

This was also seen in the translation of ‘normal bones’ into Polish, which ended up as ‘zdrowe kosci’ meaning ‘healthy bones’.

These slight mis-translations could even present a competitive advantage to companies able to make different claims to their English counterparts. “You could ask why is a food business in Poland able to use ‘healthy bones’ when an English company cannot?”

Blaszkiewicz added that these translations often meant the claim ‘sounded’ different, and therefore potentially less convincing to consumers. ‘Reduction of tiredness and fatigue', for example, was translated into French as, ‘réduire la fatigue’.

“This could sound less convincing as it's shorter and consumers may perceive it as providing less benefit,” she said.

Culture conflict

Aside from language she said there were significant cultural differences in the ‘average consumer’ these claims purport to appeal to depending on a myriad of factors including regional and social background. She said that each consumer would be bringing this cultural baggage to their reading of each claim, meaning some regions may be more susceptible while others more reluctant.

She gave the example of olive oil, noting its traditional high consumption in countries like Spain and Italy could mean that claims stating polyunsaturated fats are better for you may be met with some resistance and therefore could require further communication.

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