Food companies in Europe need proof for their health-food claims
February 4, 2009
The European Union is cracking down on foods that advertise health benefits without scientific backing, potentially undermining a strategy increasingly important to the food industry. The worldwide market for so-called healthy products is a fast-growing business for food giants such as Groupe Danone SA, Nestlé SA and Unilever. Food makers have embraced the strategy because it allows them to distinguish their products and charge more by adding healthy supplements -- such as fatty acids in baby formula that supposedly help brain development, or bacteria in yogurts purported to aid digestion -- or reformulating them with lower amounts of unhealthy ingredients like saturated fat. Such health claims are worth billions of euros in annual sales. EU governments agreed two years ago to submit health claims to scientific scrutiny. The authorities are reviewing claims and will produce a list of allowed claims. The first results of the review, published over the past five months, haven''t been promising for the industry: Only nine of the 43 claims examined so far are valid, according to the EU''s European Food Safety Authority. The goal was to have a list of approved health claims in place by January 2010, but that appears unlikely because EU authorities must evaluate more than 4,000 health claims -- many more than expected, officials say. Adding to uncertainty is continuing debate over a crucial part of the regulation: whether some products have so much sugar, saturated fat or sodium that they can''t claim health benefits, no matter how many healthy ingredients they boast. The EU''s rules are the strictest in the world, industry experts say. The EU has decided claims must be based primarily on human clinical trials. Animal studies can be used, with a few exceptions, only as supporting evidence. The major food companies say they have the scientific evidence to support their health claims. The European Commission and EU governments must now decide how both sides of that claim should be communicated to consumers. Most controversially, the EU still has to agree on the maximum levels of saturated fat, sodium and sugar that will be allowed for any product that makes health claims.