EU health claims are failing consumers and manufacturers: ‘The regulation is not working’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Health claims are failing industry and consumer, researchers argue / Pic: GettyImages-Iam Anupong
Health claims are failing industry and consumer, researchers argue / Pic: GettyImages-Iam Anupong

Related tags Health claims

Legislation governing health claims related to food and beverages in the European Union was introduced to provide consumers with access to reliable information and help manufacturers understand how and what they can communicate. According to a new research project, Health Claims Unpacked, the regulation is failing on both fronts.

Getting a health claim approved in Europe is no mean feat. Since the health claims regulation was introduced in 2007, thousands of applications have been submitted. Only around 260 claims have received the green light.

The application process is complex, costly and time-consuming. It requires a positive assessment from EFSA, based on a review of scientific evidence supplied. The EC will then give final approval or reject the claim.

“The overall aim [of the health claims regulation] is to provide useful and reliable information to consumers and support innovation in the food industry,”​ Dr Stacy Lockyer, a senior nutritionist at the British Nutrition Foundation and part of the Health Claims Unpacked project, observed. “It is important that claims on foods can be understood by the consumer and it is important to protect consumers from misleading claims.”

Surely, then, securing an approved health claim must be a massive commercial win that unlocks lucrative marketing opportunities for food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers? Consumer data would suggest possibly not.

The vigour of the health claims process is meant to provide European consumers with assurance that on-pack claims are reliable. However, research points to a level of consumer cynicism about health claims.

In April 2017, an IGD poll found 52% of people don’t believe most health claims made by food companies. And new research from Health Claims Unpacked, a research project funded by EIT-Food, discovered 79% of people think health claims are ‘just marketing’.

But while consumers might not trust on-pack health claims, it would appear that they are still important when it comes to driving purchase decisions. IGD’s survey data suggests consumers use health claims as a ‘short cut’ to finding healthier products with ‘almost as many’ consumers reporting that they look at health claims as those that examine nutritional labels.

“Health claims might be more likely to influence purchase on the younger age group,”​ Dr Lockyer noted during a digital conference yesterday (10 November).

Health claims are therefore an important tool to communicate with consumers – they just aren’t very effective. That is the assessment of Professor Rodney Jones, a sociolinguist at the University of Reading who is heading up Health Claims Unpacked.

“Quite bluntly, the regulation is not working. It isn’t reaching the aim it purports to try to reach – to help consumers have useful and reliable information about the health benefits of food. Most consumers when they read health claims on packages don’t think they are reliable, they don’t believe them, and they don’t fund them useful because often they can’t understand them because of the kind of language or wording that is used in these health claims.”

GettyImages-sergeyryzhov confused consumer labelling label
Confused consumers distrust health claims, study suggests / Pic: GettyImages-sergeyryzhov

The language barrier: ‘Normal’ versus ‘healthy’

Permitted claims, along with conditions of use, are listed on the EC website. The final wording of the claim is decided by the EC.

As anyone familiar with official EC communications might suspect, the official wording can be complicated and may not be easy to understand.

“Very often the health claims that are available to manufacturers to use from the EFSA database are written in a dense scientific language, ranging from fairly simple to much more complicated,​” Professor Jones observed.

From a linguistic point of view, the claims use ‘words that laypeople might not recognise’ and are grammatically ‘very complex’, using chains of noun phrases, he continued. They are both ‘impersonal’ and ‘disconnected’ from the evidence.

“This database of allowable health claims was written by scientists and legislators, economists. People for whom the most important thing about language is that it is accurate. But just because something is scientifically accurate doesn’t mean it communicates effectively or is easy to understand.”

The use of the word ‘normal’ in English-language health claims is case in point.

Looking at advice given by the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK, Dr Lockyer elaborated: “Companies should take care with the word ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ features quite heavily in claims in English... The advice here is that the word normal should not be removed or substituted.”

The problem with this is how the word ‘normal’ is interpreted by consumers. “The word normal has a different meaning for scientists than it does for laypeople. For many laypeople, and the people we have talked to in the context of our project, normal doesn’t have a good connotation. They don’t associate normal with something good or healthy. Many of the manufacturers the UK would rather use the word healthy,”​ Professor Jones noted.

Because health claims are translated from one European language to another this leads to inconsistencies. In Poland, for instance, ‘normal’ is translated as ‘healthy’ or ‘proper’ because of linguistic differences in the language, the linguistics expert continued.

How closely food makers have to adhere to the official line is also left to national authorities to enforce. In some instances stringent enforcement of health claims has served to discourage food makers from using them at all.

“In France, enforcement is very strict,​” Professor Jones observed. “Most French manufacturers feel like they have to stick to the wording on the EFSA database and not diverge in any way. As a result, since most manufacturers feel this wording is not a very effective way to communicate the health benefits of their products, this ends up discouraging most French manufacturers from using any health claims at all.

“That is another flaw in the law. The purpose of the law was not to prevent or discourage the use of health claims. The purpose of the law was to help people use health claims more effectively and obviously that is not what has happened here.”

GettyImages-Visivasnc health claim label
Health claims are meant to provide clarity - but result in confusion and cynicism, Health Claims Unpacked warns / Pic: GettyImages-Visivasnc

Giving the consumer a voice

Perhaps the biggest failing of the EU health claims regulation is its failure to hear the consumers' voice in all of this.

Health Claims Unpacked set out to address this issue by organising focus groups across the UK, France, Germany and Poland. The findings reinforced concerns over how health claims are understood – and whether they are trusted.

“There was difficulty in understanding the language of many of the health claims. They weren’t accessible. They felt that they didn’t really mean anything. There was just a lot of scientific jargon,”​ Professor Jones reflected.

Health Claims Unpacked has since developed a digital platform – first available in the UK and now rolling out in French, German and Polish - to engage consumers in a series of educational activities that determine how people from different backgrounds understand health claims, and how these claims influence their willingness to purchase particular products.

Based on data collected by the digital platform, the project team has developed a range of preliminary recommendations for manufacturers to help make health claims more appealing, understandable and credible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a core learning is the need to make language as simple as possible. The team advises using verbs rather than noun phrases where possible. For example ‘Calcium is needed to maintain healthy bones’ could be used instead of ‘Calcium is needed for the maintenance of healthy bones’.

Other considerations include: the use of relevant icons relating to the benefit of a nutrient, and remembering the audience when wording health claims, as research suggests that people from different age groups respond to health claims differently. For example, older people have more health ‘concerns’, whereas younger age groups have more health ‘goals’, therefore different age groups are likely to pay attention to different kinds of health benefits.

The next phase of the Health Claims Unpacked project will see the research team leverage insight from the platform to design a digital hub that manufacturers can use to directly access information about consumer preferences for different wording and improve the health claims they use on their products. A prototype of this hub will be available by the end of the year.

“By the end of this project, we hope to have developed an insightful, data-driven resource that will enable the food industry to communicate health claims more effectively, for the benefit of both the brands and their consumers,”​ Professor Jones concluded.

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