Can unhealthy foods enter the ‘health halo’? The boundaries of health claims in the absence of nutrient profiles
To date, about 30% of pre-packed food products marketed in the EU have entered the ‘health halo’, attracting consumers by scientifically proven health benefits. The Claims Regulation provides that food products must comply with so-called nutrient profiles in order to bear health claims. Although the Commission had to establish these nutrient profiles by 2009, it is a well-known fact this has not yet been achieved. This might sound like a carte blanche for the food industry to guide consumers in their dietary decisions. Quite to the contrary, ‘common sense’ seems to set the boundary for food products that can carry health claims. The Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) recently demonstrated in the Dextro case (for an English summary, see here) that there is no unlimited freedom for advertising essentially unhealthy foods. This decision must be seen in the light of society’s battle against obesity and other adverse health effects related to food products high in fat, salt and sugar (“HFSS foods”). The current post puts the Dextro decision into context and aims to deduce some learning therefrom.
The German company Dextro Energy is known for its cubes almost entirely consisting of glucose. Back in 2011, the company requested the authorization of 5 claims stating the positive effects related to energy and muscle function that consumption of the cubes brings about. Examples include: “glucose supports normal physical activity” and “glucose contributes to normal muscle function.” Following the official procedure to have such a claim authorized, the cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of the glucose cubes and the claimed health benefits needs to be proven by EFSA. While EFSA did provide a positive opinion, this did not result in an authorized health claim. The Commission has the last say in the procedure, including political, social and economic concerns into its decision. In the Dextro case, the Commission reasoned that the claims conveyed a ‘contradictory and ambiguous message’ to consumers. Although the human body needs a certain amount of glucose, the claim contradicts the current trend of the equally scientifically underpinned advice to reduce of sugar intake. According to the Commission, additional statements or warnings would not make up for the misleading claims. Dextro Energy challenged, amongst others, the Commission’s discretion to disallow a scientifically proven health claim. Both the Court in First Instance and the Court of Appeal countered the company’s arguments.
Setting the scene: health claims on other sugary products
The decision of the ECJ did not come as a surprise. Last summer, the European Parliament rejected controversial caffeine claims on energy drinks. Similar to the considerations in the Dextro case, health claims on sugary products were feared to nudge consumers towards poor consumption choices. Also, the request by Kinder Chocolate for authorization of a health claim on milk contributing the child development has been rejected. This rejection took place on a different ground, as the request was considered to lack the required scientific underpinning. Barry Callebaut was more lucky with its request for authorization of a health claim on cocoa flavanols in cocoa beverages with cocoa powder, dark chocolate, capsules or tablets. The claim refers to a beneficial contribution to the normal blood circulation and so the maintenance of elasticity of blood vessels. Of course, this claim might stimulate chocolate consumption. The difference, however, lays in the fact that the focus is on cocoa flavanols as bioactive compounds in cocoa extract. As opposed to the aforementioned substances glucose and caffeine – which are already controversial themselves – no HFSS food is directly involved. The claim was approved in 2015, being the first in kind in the chocolate field.
Industry pleas for nutrition profiles
Nutrition profiles were meant to prohibit nutrition and health claims on essentially unhealthy foods. As their establishment took so long, thereby creating uncertainty for the industry, the European Parliament initially considered to call them off. However, as shown in the Dextro case, the absence of nutrient profiles caused the Commission to rely on the very general principle of misleading in the appreciation of the claims at stake. This is the key item in food information matters both embodied in the Claims Regulation (article 3 (a)) and the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (article 7 (1)). As this concept of misleading is pretty broad and thereby not well-defined, food companies introduced a plea in favor of the establishment of nutrient profiles. This would shape the level playing field for all FBO’s and ensure that unhealthy foods cannot be promoted using health claims. Five leading food companies have recently called on the Commission in a public letter to take up its task of establishing nutrient profiles. Health and consumer organizations were also involved in the letter, arguing that a clear exclusion of nutrition and health claims on HFSS foods will benefit consumer behavior.
The road forward
To prevent ambiguous health claims, the prohibition of such claims on beverages containing more than 1,2% alcohol is already explicitly mentioned in Health Claims Regulation. Will claims on HFSS foods be limited in the same manner? The open letter by the industry and other relevant parties is a push into that direction. The establishment of nutrient profiles could mean that the beneficial health effects attributed to cocoa flavanols can no longer be used on those chocolate products classified as ‘unhealthy’, for instance due to their high sugar content usually present in milk choclate. However, at this moment, it cannot be predicted whether the Commission will take up its task after about 10 years of delay. Meanwhile, the ECJ backs the criterion of misleading to fill the regulatory gap. Based on the examples mentioned above, ‘common sense’ based on generally accepted scientific principles provides the line between acceptable use of health claims and misleading practices.
As demonstrated in the Dextro case, health claims on HFSS foods are perceived misleading in society’s current fight against obesity and other diet-related disorders. The ECJ backed a Commission decision rejecting Dextro’s claims, considering the pro-glucose plea contained therein to be in violation of the principle that food information should not be ambiguous and misleading This case is not the first of its kind. Other examples of claims possibly driving consumers towards unintended unhealthy food choices include caffeine in energy drinks. As a consequence, those claims were rejected too. The general learning that can be drawn from these cases is that claims should not be considered in isolation, but in the context of generally accepted scientific standards. As an advice to FBO’s considering filing or using such claim, I recommend not to lose an eye for the context in which the claim is used. This basically comes down using common sense when using or applying for health claims. Does not that make sense?
The author is grateful to Jasmin Buijs, intern at AXON, who co-wrote this post.