This was the key take away from the panel discussion hosted by the consumer research firm MMR during its virtual Functional Food Festival last Wednesday (October 20th).
Freelance registered nutritionist Claire Baseley joined the panel and discussed her concerns around the restrictive European legislation on health claims which seem to be leading many brands to make up their own rules.
“[In Europe] there is a very short list of approved claims you can make on a product. I look across the superfood and functional categories and see that maybe 80% of products are making claims that aren’t legal.
“Claims like 'good for your gut', 'cognitive enhancement', 'improved focus' - none of these are approved claims and yet I see them all over the place. There is a lack of enforcement and this is leading to a little bit of a wild west.
“For those entering the market, you’re facing competitors who are making illegal claims. As a brand you want to be responsible and stay within the law but it’s incredibly difficult.”
She explained brands have the challenge of trying to communicate their products' health benefits to consumers in words they will not only easily understand but that will actually encourage them to purchase the product.
“The British Nutrition Foundation, as well as MMR, have done research into what are the most persuasive claims and what language consumers like. And this reveals they want something that is 'immune boosting' or that 'benefits immunity' but you aren’t allowed to say those things. You have to say 'supports normal immune function' which is dry and boring.
"You can’t says 'anti-oxidant', you have to say 'protects cells from oxidative stress'. Who knows what that means? It’s inaccessible. There’s a real gap between what the approved claim wording is and what consumers want to see.”
Baseley said there are a few creative ways of working within the restrictions.
“Say you have a nootropic product and you want to talk about cognitive benefits, you can fortify with other nutrients which provide certain benefits. So if you add these alongside your more out-there, less well-researched ingredients, you can start to make some of those claims on pack but you have to be incredibly careful about your wording - don't exaggerate or go over the top with it.”
“You might be able to say ‘immune support’ which consumers like more than ‘supports normal immune function’ but you aren’t exaggerating your claim.
“But it is a huge barrier especially if you want to get into the mults. Although I do still walk down the supermarket aisles and see misleading claims out there.”
Speaking about the growing opportunity in medicinal mushrooms, Baseley said the consumer research clearly shows mind health and immune health are both front of mind for consumers, and the research portfolio for this category is growing, so there is huge potential.
"We’ve seen some really interesting research coming out, especially in Reishi mushrooms. That being said, there is still huge amounts more to do on research in this space.
“With Lion’s Mane mushrooms, there’s only been one study in humans. Most studies are in vitro. And that’s where I have some concerns, especially around talking about anti-cancer benefits. It’s way too early to be using these ingredients. We can talk about using these ingredients as part of a healthy lifestyle to help reduce risk of lifestyle and long-term diseases but they should never be used as a replacement for medical treatment.”