Health Claims in Functional Foods – Do they work?

By Konstantinos Maragkakis

Over the last decades, healthy diet and lifestyle have earned a prominent place as more people are realizing that long-term prevention starting early in life, is key to avoiding the onset of many non-communicable diseases. And this prevention begins through what we eat every day.

Governments in the European Union are also beginning to integrate prevention as a key aspect of their health policies, realizing that their medical budgets are beginning to creak under the weight of an increasingly ageing population. Additionally, chronic ‘lifestyle’ disease epidemics like Type II diabetes coming from obesity owed to sedentary life and unhealthy diet are adding on the health care budget burden.

Given the increasing public interest in a healthy diet, the food industry, identifying potential opportunities and utilizing scientific advances, has begun creating an entire range of products called functional foods that are aimed to promote health in one way or another. Today, super-market shelves are full of such products with various claims on health improvements.

The consumer, swamped by all these claims, naturally asks “do these foods actually have the effect they claim?”

The answer, in short, is “Yes, if the health claim a food makes is approved by the European Commission”.

With EU Regulation 1924/2006, the EU has set about placing some serious considerations in functional foods. The key principle is that the European Commission “authorises different health claims provided they are based on scientific evidence and can be easily understood by consumers. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is responsible for evaluating the scientific evidence supporting health claims”.

The process covers functional claims (related, for example to weight loss), risk reducing claims (like how foods with added plant sterols and stanols effectively reduce blood cholesterol levels), and claims referring to children’s development.

This is no easy process for any product and there are many and significant checks and hurdles to overcome before being granted that health claim. Professor Salminen, a leading expert on Functional Foods and Health from the University of Turku explains in a brief interview the process and how consumers can have confidence in such health claims. Furthermore, many such claims applications can be rejected, creating further challenges especially on producers whose core offer depends on validating such a claim.

This cumbersome regulatory process has drawn criticism given that it can become quite slow as the process has significant stages, EFSA has a heavy workload, and it can become quite costly.

The Juncker Commission had stated its intention to act on EU food policy including health claims. However, and probably due to political prioritization which is a strong characteristic of this particular Commission, no serious revision was made in health claims, although the Novel Foods legislation is undergoing a revision. Additionally, the Commission have launched a fitness check on the General Food Law which is in progress and is also planning to address certain institutional and functional shortcomings of EFSA.

Coming close to the end of Q1 2018 and with the Commission putting their pencils down and waiting for the political who’s-next-for-2019 show to begin in less than a year, we should not expect much to happen.

However, given the current health and lifestyle trends in societies, scientific advances, and health policy priorities on prevention, expect food policy to become an unavoidable priority for the next Commission. Improving consumer information and understanding of health claims will probably be one of the focal points.

Until then, rest assured that spreads or yoghurt drinks with added plant sterols or stanols you see on the super market shelf have indeed been shown to reduce blood cholesterol by the amount they claim. As well as other functional foods with EU recognized health claims will indeed perform according to what they state.

But, do not forget that these functional foods are not magic bullets and should be consumed as part of a more active lifestyle and healthier diet, as they alone will do no wonders.