How to eat well: the sticky problem of labelling

By Ian Marber, March 8, 2013
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Aside from writing for august publications, a large part of my time is spent developing foods. At present I am working on a new range for a large and respected brand, which entails understanding the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rulings on health claims.

You may not be aware of them but, in short, they are designed to regulate the potentially fanciful claims that can appear on food labels.

New and stricter rules became law in December last year but so far it seems as if few UK brands have changed their labels to comply. If you saw a food, lets say a cereal bar, that claimed to give you energy, or a tea that claimed immune boosting properties, then these claims are now regulated.

Looking at energy, for example, any cereal bar that contained grains would therefore contain B vitamins. B vitamins play an important role in the process of making energy, and so it follows that this food gives you energy. Bingo, there’s your claim.

Or at least there was your claim - now, with the EFSA rulings, you might have to have a minimum amount of the vitamin in the bar (which would be 15 per cent of the recommended daily allowance or RDA) and then you might be able to say that the vitamin: "Contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism". I am sure you will agree that this isn’t a claim that is likely to have you reaching for the cereal bar.

For immune boosting properties, if the food had 15 per cent of the RDA of vitamin C, which is 12mg, then you could claim that ‘vitamin C contributes to the normal function of the immune system’. Once again, it’s not that exciting, is it?

But then that’s the point really, as claims on foods have long been overstated and the health food manufacturers are now being brought into line.

The enforcement of these new rules falls to the Trading Standards Office and so local officers are no doubt working their way through food labels and contacting manufacturers accordingly.

While I accept that the consumer needs to be protected from spurious marketing, the list of non-authorised claims seems draconian. One claim that has been rejected is "caffeine can delay the onset of fatigue", yet anyone who has ever had a cup of coffee will know that it can. But who are we to argue with the EFSA?

Ian Marber is one of the UK’s most highly regarded nutrition experts and the author of 11 books. www.ianmarber.com

Last updated: 9:44pm, March 8 2013