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Are meaningless ‘commodity health claims’ flooding European shelves?

By Shane Starling , 18-Jul-2011

European food makers are beginning to utilise positive article 13, general function health claim opinions issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), precipitating a flood of potentially meaningless claims, according to one industry observer.

Standing in a branch of Tesco, the UK's biggest grocery retailer, and browsing for a healthy snack, I was reminded that, thanks to EFSA, Europe's health claim regulator, Europe is fast becoming awash with health claims of all kinds,” wrote Julian Mellentin, a leading industry consultant and editor.

He noted a line of Tesco-branded pistachio nuts that utilised a positive article 13 opinion for protein and muscle function by claiming front-of-pack:

“Pistachio nuts are high in protein, essential for the body's growth and repair.”

Last week UK breakfast cereal maker Weetabix announced a multi-million pound rebranding of its marquee Weetabix line to include glycaemic marketing, which also followed from positive EFSA opinions relating to fibre in that area.

Such claims and others that have won positive EFSA opinions have typically been issued with caveats that products must contain certain levels to bear the claims – but the levels are often low, leaving Mellentin to wonder if an environment is being created where the market may be crammed with ineffective claims.

The Tesco pistachio claim was, he said, “simply a marketer's way of using the EFSA claim, ‘Contributes to the growth or maintenance of muscle mass’, which any food can legally make if protein is 12% of the energy value of the food.”

That EFSA opinion can be found here.

“And that's just the tip of the iceberg. If your product scores just 15% of the RDA of any one of around 20 vitamins or minerals it opens the door to you using one of a longish list of permitted claims.”

These included:

  • improves cognitive function
  • reduction of blood glucose after meals
  • reduction of tiredness and fatigue
  • contributes to protection from oxidative damage

Everyday commodities

He added: “The pistachio nuts are just the beginning. ‘Commodity health claims’ - as one senior executive called them - are popping up everywhere, on everything. And as such they are of little or no commercial value.”

“And the fact that most people won't actually feel any of the claimed benefits - people in the science community question the credibility of the blanket standard of 15% of the RDA - will only make consumers sceptical. So there we have it - in Europe health claims are just an everyday commodity.”

“And as in the past, the products that will succeed will remain those that have great taste, great packaging, creative marketing and a clear and credible benefit that's relevant to consumers. While a health claim is helpful, it's no substitute for any of these things.”

Slow release energy

According to our sister publication, The Grocer, Weetabix has committed to spending £7m (€8m) on revamping the marketing of its €100m+-a-year Weetabix brand.

That includes radio, social media and smartphone campaigns as well as the strap ‘slow-release energy’ being added to front-of-pack.

"The campaign is designed to tap into the need all people have for sustained energy to get them through their big day," said Weetabix head of marketing Adrian Mooney.

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