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EU rejects two-thirds of health claims for “functional foods”

Last week the European Union released its long-awaited opinions on more than 500 health claims that food manufacturers make for their products.

These are the claims that a particular food — or, more likely, a single ingredient in a processed food — “helps maintain a healthy heart” or “provides immune support” or “regulates the digestive system.”

Guess what? They found that two-thirds of the claims had no scientific merit.

That’s good news for consumers, who can now make wiser choices (for their pocketbook as well as for their health) at the grocery store.

That’s not good news for the supplement and food manufacturers who have been profiting big time by selling such “functional foods.”

No pros for probiotics
Perhaps the most noteworthy rejection from the scientists at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) (the panel that conducted the evaluations) involved health claims for “probiotics.” Advocates for these so-called friendly bacteria (found most notably in certain yogurts) say they ward off harmful bacteria in the intestines and thus guard the gut — and aid digestion.

The EFSA evaluated 180 health claims for probiotic ingredients. They rejected 10 of the claims outright, and said the other 170 had insufficient evidence.

A few of the other findings:

• Taurine, an amino acid that’s frequently added to sports drinks, does nothing to boost energy levels.
• Adding beta-carotene to sunscreen does not provide any extra protection against the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
• Supplements of glucosamine and chondroitin do nothing to benefit the joints.
• Astaxanthin (a carotenoid) does not improve eye health.

A few of the claims that were found to have scientific support: Vitamin D is good for the bones, dietary fiber can lower cholesterol, and sugar-free chewing gum helps reduce cavities.

Just getting started
The work of the panel isn’t done. It’s going to be looking at the evidence (or lack thereof) of several thousand more “functional food” health claims.

As Albert Flynn, chairman of the EFSA’s expert panel, told the British newspaper the Telegraph: “There were many claims on the market and consumers needed to be reassured that these claims were accurate and were backed by science. If the claims are backed by science, it may be permitted, but if they are not, they may be prohibited.”

Do you hear that huge thunderous noise in the distance? That’s the wave of push-back coming from the food and supplement manufacturers. Stay tuned.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Paul Scott on 10/08/2009 - 12:35 pm.

    What about my “heart healthy” Cheerios!

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