Food marketers are on notice as the European Commission gears up to ban thousands of unproved health claims on food labeling, including that olive oil has anti-inflammatory properties or helps keep HDL cholesterol and blood pressure at normal levels.
However, in what is seen as a significant exception, it will be okay to claim that the polyphenols in olives have a beneficial anti-oxidant effect on LDL, the “good” cholesterol. That was one of the just 22 percent of claims approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies.
After a mammoth project without international precedent, EFSA last month published its final set of opinions on ‘general function’ health claims that may be made on labels. The European Commission is to present by the end of the year an official list, followed by a transition period for the food sector to adopt the changes.
In an effort to protect European consumers and help them make more informed choices about their diet, since 2008 the panel has evaluated 2,758 health claims. It is continuing to liaise with applicants over claims for which the initial evidence failed to establish a cause and effect relationship.
Insufficient evidence of a cause and effect relationship was the reason EFSA gave in April when it rejected the claims that olive polyphenols help maintain normal blood HDL cholesterol levels and help maintain normal blood pressure.
In relation to claims that olive polyphenols contribute to upper respiratory tract health, can help to maintain normal gastrointestinal tract function, and contribute to body defenses against external agents, the panel found in each of these cases that “the claimed effect is general and non-specific” and did not meet an E.C. requirement that they refer to a specific health claim.
As for olive polyphenols having anti-inflammatory properties, the panel found this claim also fell short of E.C. regulations: “The reduction of inflammation in the context of diseases such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis is a therapeutic target for the treatment of the disease, and does not comply with the criteria laid down.”
The fact that it did, however, allow the claim of protection of low density lipoproteins (LDL) particles from oxidative damage was unexpected, according to Stefanie Geiser, regulatory affairs manager of the international food policy consultancy EAS.
“One surprise in the April batch, in light of EFSA’s trend so far, has been a first positive opinion for an antioxidant claim – on polyphenols from olive oil and the protection of lipids from oxidative damage,” said Geiser. “Until then, EFSA had only issued positive antioxidant claims opinions for vitamins and minerals,” she said.
Regarding the imminent new labeling rules, Geiser said that companies with rejected claims should be preparing now to “face the challenge of having to develop alternative ways of marketing and advertising to communicate health and other benefits of products.” They should also adapt strategies to benefit as much as possible from the approved claims, and explore new advertising methods for products with ingredients for which claims have not been approved, she said.
The E.C.’s goal is to establish a set of permitted health claims that are accurate, truthful and substantiated by science. EFSA defends its 80 percent rejection rate on grounds including the poor quality of backing information. “Information gaps included, for instance: the inability to identify the specific substance on which the claim is based; the lack of evidence that the claimed effect is indeed beneficial to the maintenance or improvement of body functions; or the lack of precision regarding the health claim being made. In addition, some claims were outside the scope of the current legal framework,” it said.
However, Dr Alexander Schoch, manager for regulatory affairs at the Beneo Institute, believes that EFSA’s requirement for “significant scientific agreement” on a health claim is too big a barrier for the vast majority of them. Instead, the science behind health claims should be “credible” – not necessarily “generally accepted”, he said.