The complaint concerned a magazine advertisement for Pharma Nord UK food supplement Bio-Pycnogenol, which the company claimed was a “natural way to prevent springtime sneezes".
It also said its product – based on French maritime pine bark Pinus Pinaster - worked as an antioxidant, “helping to maintain good health by protecting cells from oxidative damage".
A complainant challenged whether the ability to prevent hay fever symptoms amounted to a disease prevention claim, which would not be permitted for a food supplement.
They also said the antioxidant claim was not authorised according to the EU Register of Nutrition and Health Claims for Foods.
Stating and implying
The advertisement went on to say: "Pycongenol is powerful, proven, effective and safe. It is the ideal food supplement to help you prepare for the spring and summer season ahead.
“Start taking Bio-Pycnogenol early so that your body is prepared for when the pollen count rises. In doing this, you will give yourself the best chance of combating seasonally-related symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes and runny nose."
ASA upheld both points, saying the company had been told the advertisement must not appear again in its current form.
“We told Pharma Nord not to state or imply that Bio-Pycnogenol could prevent hay fever symptoms, or claim that a food supplement could prevent, treat or cure human disease,” ASA said in its ruling.
It added that the company must not refer in any way to the term "antioxidant" unless authorised on the health claims register.
It’s about "springtime sneezes", not diseases
In its defence, Pharma Nord said it had referred to "springtime sneezes" and "pollen count" in the advert, not to hay fever or allergic rhinitis specifically. It said the wording applied equally to non-allergic rhinitis, which was not a disease but an irritation of the respiratory tract caused by pollen.
Yet ASA said consumers were likely to take this to mean the supplement could prevent hay fever.
On the botanical waiting list
The company said two health claims for Pinus pinaster submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) were currently on hold. One of the claims, "contains herbs with lung inflammation reducing, cough up promoting and bronchial spasm reducing properties", was currently listed as "under consideration".
The second application was for the ability to “help maintain good health by protecting cells and tissues through its antioxidant property".
On the register this was listed as "finalised, negative outcome", but since this EFSA opinion was yet to be adopted by the European Commission it technically remained on hold.
“They believed this allowed them to continue to use that claim. They also said that all substances could act as antioxidants and that to state that a product had antioxidant property would have no meaning without further qualification,” the authority wrote.
ASA accepted that claims on hold for such botanicals could be used in marketing, but said this must have the same meaning as the pending claim. It felt use of the terms ‘oxidative damage’, ‘potent’ and ‘super’ exaggerated this original wording.
The firm justified its use of the latter two saying it indicated the “well-established potent antioxidant activity of Pycnogenol”, and it provided peer-reviewed articles to support this.