'Keeps the blood cool!" "Makes red blood redder!" "Will correct stomach troubles!" The trick of making a health claim to sell your factory food is nothing new, as these 19th-century slogans from cereal packs show. They are among my favourites on display in the Kellogg's museum of cereal history in Battle Creek, Michigan. Alongside the cases of antique cardboard boxes of products delighting in such names as Vim, Vigor, Korn Kinks and Climax, are records of the original grape nuts, sold not only as "brain food" but as a cure for consumption and malaria, and perhaps most remarkable, given their hardness, as an antidote to loose teeth. It was the inventor of grape nuts, Charles Post, who distributed an early food marketing pamphlet entitled The Road to Wellville, because, as he pointed out, advertising is "the sunshine that makes a business plant grow".
The food industry has been keen to keep us all on the lucrative Road to Wellville ever since and while we may have no difficulty seeing through the ludicrously exaggerated claims made for new products a century ago, we seem to have been happy to buy into today's equivalent, the booming market in so called "functional foods" that promise to cure everything from indigestion to memory loss and lethargy.
Unfortunately for the industry, last week the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rejected about 350 claims made for a swathe of food products currently marketed as good for your health. Under new EU rules on labelling, being introduced after years of pressure from consumer groups, EFSA has been asked to review the scientific evidence for health claims made by food manufacturers. The idea is that eventually only those claims supported by robust science will be allowed on products, and only then if the product overall meets healthy requirements on fat, salt and sugar content. EFSA has just completed part of that review and found that two-thirds of about 500 claims submitted are unfounded.
Out of hundreds of "probiotic" strains of bacteria under consideration, not one was shown to improve gut health or immunity. Taurine, the amino acid added to energy and sports drinks, was not found to boost energy. Nor was there evidence to support the claim that glucosamine is beneficial for joints, although it is widely marketed as such.
EFSA still has a long way to go. As part of the tightening up of rules around health claims, from 2007 individual member states were asked to collect the claims being made by their industries and submit them to the authority for scrutiny. A staggering 44,000 claims were sent in to the Parma-based authority for its team of independent scientists to give an opinion on whether they were true or not. These have been whittled down to around 4,000 for which there might at least be some evidence. Last week's batch of 350 rejections was of claims that relate to general health, such as "boost the immune system" or "improves mental performance". EFSA has yet to look at other claims for products that are more specific or suggest that they may reduce disease.
The leading manufacturers of probiotics were quick to point out that their own claims have not yet been assessed by EFSA. Danone withdrew its original claims for Actimel and Activia products earlier this year, saying it would resubmit them. Yakult has submitted scientific dossiers for its probiotic drinks under a different category, yet to be examined.
Neverthless the recent rulings represent a hammer blow to the food and supplements industry. The exponential growth in "functional foods" began in the 1990s when manufacturers were increasingly under pressure from supermarkets using their dominance to squeeze suppliers' margins. Packaging highly processed foods up with health claims was one way for brands to maintain a premium in a saturated market.
The claims that did make it through the EFSA process last week were mostly for vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. But affirmation that calcium, available in milk, and meat and eggs, is good for bones or that iron, available in dark green leafy vegetables and wholemeal bread as well as meat, is good for blood function, does not present quite the same scope for proprietary profit.