As tough new European proposals on health claims undergo scrutiny from member states, a UK-based consumer group keeps the pressure up, claiming this week that 'food manufacturers are continuing to make unwarranted health claims on their packaging'.
Obliged to set the record straight on the new proposals laid out in July this year, the European Commission last week issued a statement to clear up complaints based on 'myths and misunderstandings'. But after new findings came to light, for the UK Consumer Association (Which?) the health claims legislation can not come soon enough.
Which? asked three nutrition experts - a dietician, a nutrition / dietetic consultant and a public health nutritionist - to look at a range of widely available products found on supermarket shelves. These included products claiming they counted towards 'five a day' for fruit and veg portions, those making health claims for healthy hearts, bones and improved concentration and those that claimed to have added healthy extras such as calcium, vitamins and fibre.
The experts' view was that health claims can be based on scanty evidence and, in many cases, cheaper foods that don't make special claims are just as nutritious, said Which? in a statement last week.
The group underlined apparently disparate information from government and industry on the five-a-day campaign.'The Department of Health launched a 5-a-day logo earlier this year to make this easier to follow, but some of the advice is hard to interpret. The Food Standards Agency and the DoH seem confused: Which?'s research uncovered inconsistencies in the two bodies' advice, which the DoH has agreed to address,' said Which?
Building on the confusion, the group claims, is the fact that Heinz, Knorr and Sainsbury's have also introduced their own five-a-day schemes that 'do not always tie in with the current government advice'.
'Heinz Spaghetti in tomato sauce claims to contain one portion per can. In a way, this is true because the tomato puree in the spaghetti counts as one portion. Yet it would not merit a government logo because of the high salt level.
Sainsbury's Way to Five Fruit Smoothie claims to contain two fruit and veg portions. However, the DoH says juices and smoothies can only count as one portion per day. As part of its new 5-a-day scheme, Sainsbury's is currently reassessing its claims about this smoothie,' the group added.
Citing a host of other food manufacturers and food products, Which? highlights Danone's Activia Cereal Yoghurt which 'although it contains probiotics, and there is evidence probiotics can help people with disorders such as diarrhoea, there is no evidence that consumers with healthy systems will benefit'.
Elsewhere, 'Quaker Oatso Simple claims to be rich in soluble fibre 'which…can help maintain a healthy heart'. Though this is true, it's no better than porridge or other cereals that contain oats, and one serving contains the equivalent of two dessert spoons of sugar,' said the group.
The survey also raised concerns over fortified foods - also encompassed under the new European proposals - questioning the effect on health after consuming certain high-dose supplements, or large amounts of foods with added vitamins or minerals, over a long period.
For the UK Consumer Association - instrumental along with other European consumer bodies in taking the health claims debate to a European legislative level - these latest survey findings stress once again the need for tough rules on food labels.
"It can be hard to eat healthily, and it's even harder when food labels are confusing. If proposals are accepted, foods with high levels of sugar, salt or fat won't be allowed to make health claims, and meaningless, unclear or unproven claims would be banned," said Helen Parker, editor of Which?