It has been one of those laws that has proven to be far more complex to apply than anticipated and has had a profound impact on the market. Yes, consumers are probably more protected against overly misleading claims, but the promise that this legislation would lead to true innovations with high scientific credibility has not really come true.
Just ask the few companies that have taken the trouble to submit an application: the process is exceedingly slow and bureaucratic. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) applies such a high standard that possibilities are limited and the decision process often results in further restrictions that limit marketability. Success stories are therefore rather scarce.
Still, companies must live with this legislation and some have elegantly adapted their communications strategy to use the possibilities still offered within the narrow boundaries of the law to successfully convey the health benefits of their products to consumers. In the end, companies with thorough knowledge of the system and principles to apply, are best equipped to understand how to communicate and limit the risks of being challenged by enforcement bodies.
Probiotics constitute a clear example of a food category that has not seen success and where frustration is high. It is difficult to imagine no evidence is available to support health benefits of probiotics, especially given the thousands of studies that have been published. So, what could be the reasons? Is the system to blame or do we need a completely new paradigm to address health benefits in otherwise healthy people?
Some questions remain and are worth considering:
- Is it really so that increasing certain strains of probiotic bacteria in the gut cannot be considered a beneficial health effect as such, given the changes in gut environment this creates?
- Is it really so that increases or decreases of biomarkers of immune responses that are caused by ingestion of specific probiotic bacteria are not relevant for health?
- Is it really justified that consumers cannot even be told that the products on the market contain probiotic bacteria?
Health claims are about scientifically justified benefits. As much as marketing people would like to promise the world, science should always be the basis. However, the Health Claims Regulation has clearly increased the standard for justification required and in doing so has also narrowed considerably the scope of health benefits that are possible in a healthy population. Claims that intake of beneficial food compounds contribute to health are no longer possible unless a clear improvement of a health or disease risk parameter can be shown.
Maybe it is time, more than ten years after its adoption, to do a thorough impact assessment of this law.
Patrick Coppens will be speaking at Vitafoods Europe 2018 on the European Health Claims Regulation. View the full programme and register to attend here.