The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)'s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) built on earlier positive opinions that found vitamin C could contribute to immune system function in people of ages, but here the focus was only 0-3 year olds.
The NDA opinion noted potential applications like follow-on formulae, foods for special medical purposes or cereal-based foods for children should comply with EU directives governing them, if they were to employ the claim.
UK-based nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton from Nutrition Communications welcomed the opinion. “It makes manufacturers feel more confident in making their own claims," she told us from her Scotland base.
"It also gives public confidence in a claim where I don’t think we would have seen it in the past. Manufacturers have been anxious about making claims so hopefully the manufacturer’s improved confidence will mean claims get used more, and also used in the way they were originally intended.”
But Patti Rundall, the policy director at UK pro-breastfeeding group Baby Milk Action (BMA), questioned whether products like follow-on formulae should bear such claims.
The BDA view
British Dietetic Association dietitian Gillian Farren said that although manufacturers may be display the claim on-pack if it passes into EU law, because the products will be specialised foods for infants and young children, ingredients including vitamin C content and other marketing criteria must remain within the strictures of directives already implemented across the 28-nation EU bloc.
"It would seem that [manufacturers] can proceed to use the claim on their products [if passed into law], with the intention that it may prompt consumers to choose the product over another brand, but I would anticipate little difference in the end result to the consumer or their child in terms of health outcomes.
"The EFSA evaluation also offers a significant point in terms of the ease with which the average infant/young child will achieve their requirement of vitamin C through conventional healthy diet.
"However, to the average mum or dad as they scan the supermarket shelves it is fair to imagine that this vitamin C health claim may sway hearts and minds somewhat."
"What steps will be taken to stop these opinions being exploited?" she wondered. "There are now a plethora of applications for promotional claims on foods and products for infants and young children that all mislead the public and hide the risks of the product as a whole. Claims imply advantages over breastfeeding and bio-diverse, nutritious family foods that are not on sale cannot compete."
The article 14 children's health claim was submitted in 2008 by the trade group Specialised Nutrition Europe (SNE, formerly IDACE), which large infant formula makers as members.
Aurélie Perrichet, SNE's executive director, told us the opinion would allow parents and caregivers to be clearly informed about the role played by the nutrient and the way the products of SNE members contribute to the specific needs of infants and young children.
Dr Ruxton added manufacturers should resist the temptation to embolden claims beyond the EFSA’s authorised wording, but backed responsible use of the claim as the exiting article 13.1, vitamin C-immunity, general function EU nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) claim ran the risk of challenge if used in children's products for lack of specificity to that population group.
In the the UK, the Department of Health (DoH) Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has said of formula fortification: "We find the case for labelling infant formula or follow on formula with health or nutrition claims entirely unsupportable. If an ingredient is unequivocally beneficial as demonstrated by independent review of scientific data it would be unethical to withhold it for commercial reasons.
Rather it should be made a required ingredient of infant formula in order to reduce existing risks associated with artificial feeding. To do otherwise is not in the best interests of children, and fails to recognise the crucial distinction between these products and other foods."
The WHO recommends using infant formulas for babies up to the age of six months only when breastfeeding is not possible. Promotion of these products is prohibited in most countries as an international code prevents the promotion of breast milk substitutes.
Marketing of follow-on formulas intended for infants aged between six months and three years is controlled in most countries and regions including the EU, although to varying degrees.
Claims cannot be made on infant formulae, EFSA said, but there are no legal restrictions on follow-on formulas or processed cereal-based foods and baby foods (meals). However, the authorisation of claims on this type of foods is subject to agreement by the European Commission and Member States.