Industry experts from around the world heard founder of healthcare communication consultancy Healthy Marketing Team, Peter Wennstrom, argue that health claim restrictions are stopping food and drink firms from providing the solution to an important political issue.
“I would say it’s a political issue to change the system," he told the room of industry leaders."The restrictions are locking us into the old system where food is there to give us energy and pharmacy is there to cure us rather than allowing us to move with the modern trend to keep ourselves healthy through nutrition.
"We see the burden of diabetes, obesity, heart problems, et cetera and it’s a big political issue and I think you should be more angry than you are.”
He added that many companies have reformulated their probiotic products with added vitamins, in order to be able to make the claims they want to make, but Wennstrom warned this is an extremely dangerous path for the long term future of the industry.
“After EFSA’s regulations came into force, companies had to look at what claims they could make and added ingredients l
ike vitamin C and Calcium and Vitamin B6.
“This provides short term wins, but long terms losses,because it’s leading consumers to the wrong understanding of where the health benefits are coming from.
“If we start making claims only based on vitamin content then people will just decide to buy products with vitamins in because they are cheaper than those with probiotics...This is a very dangerous route for the industry.”
Just one tool in your communication toolbox
But the experienced consultant pointed out that claims are by no means the most important way to communicate health benefits to consumers.
He suggested that companies should concentrate on teaching consumers the benefits of maintaining good health, as opposed to treating ailments, and reminded business leaders not to let their quest for health claims take their focus away from educating consumers.
“Claims are not an option, but education is.
“There’s so much information on the internet now and young consumers are embracing this idea of keeping ourselves healthy through good nutrition. And this new focus on nutrition is bringing about a new understanding of probiotics.
"As long as you are focusing on your claims, you forget your biggest challenge should be to educate the consumer...Claims are just one tool in your communication toolbox."
The marketing mogul argued that companies need to teach consumers that daily upkeep is needed to improve our health.
“The important message to bring out is that we have too few of the good bacteria in our bodies because of the stresses and strains of modern life...That’s not about claims, that’s about education."
During a separate panel discussion at the conference, George Paraskevakos, executive director at IPA, agreed that education is needed as we do not currently live in a society that believes in prevention.
“Our governments are about dispensing pills to treat disease whereas we are talking about taking steps way before having to treat the disease.”
Dr Gregory Leyer, chief scientific officer at UAS Labs, agreed communication is the challenge and industry leaders have to work to change the mindset of consumers to understand the importance to preventing the need to use pharmaceuticals
“The proposition is to keep people off those pharmaceuticals and look to what we can do naturally to keep them off them,” he explained.
“But this is a hard message for consumers to comply with because it’s a question of take these probiotics every day for months or take these pills for a few days.”
Dr Leyer pointed out that even when a firm has the perfect clinical trial to represent the health benefits of their probiotic, they still face many communication difficulties.
“There’s a ‘beautiful’ clinical study demonstrating the cardiovascular health benefits of probiotics but this is not going to resonate with consumers as they simply don’t understand how probiotics can benefit their hearts.
“It’s the educational challenge with the consumer that is most important.”
Health care ambassadors
Paraskevakos adding that the best way to get health messages to the public, is through healthcare professionals.
“At IPA we decided to find ambassadors to get that message out there, including health care professionals - people who can speak to their patients and tell them why they should take probiotics.
“The good news is there is a university that is putting together a curriculum for Science of Natural Medicine and they’ve asked us to help create this potential four year course . That’s great. If we can get doctors early in their career that will be great for the industry.
"It’s not that we don’t have the evidence, it’s that we need to be able to communicate it.”