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Healthy claims on unhealthy foods

Irish TimesThis week’s Pricewatch column has an interesting piece about the health claims made for processed foods, and how the European Food Safety Authority monitors those claims. We’re probably all familiar with how some foods will trumpet their lack of fat, while conveniently forgetting to mention that they are extremely high in salt and sugar. We’re also familiar with foods that have ‘OMEGA 3!!’ or ‘TAURINE!!’ emblazoned across them, but how often do we stop and consider if these ingredients really have any health benefits at all?

In a third of the products examined, the EFSA panel found claims being made by manufacturers had scientific merit – sugar-free chewing gum does help maintain dental health, products high in dietary fibres improve bowel function and ones with certain fatty acids do help maintain cholesterol at safe levels. On the other hand, it declared that taurine, an amino acid commonly found in sports drinks, does not boost energy levels; beta-carotene in sunscreen does not provide additional protection against ultraviolet rays; while glucosamine does not benefit the joints.

When it came to probiotics — creatures which, we are told, fight harmful intestinal bacteria and help the digestive process – the news wasn’t so good. Of 180 claims assessed, 10 were rejected entirely while the panel said it was not able to establish a link between the consumption of the other 170 products and improvements in health because there was not enough scientific evidence to back up the claims.

As  shoppers, we  need to be extra vigilant – not only checking that offers are all they claim to be, but also checking the nutritional values in the small print on the backs of products.  Of course, if you cook your own food from scratch, you have much more control over the added salt and sugar levels.  It’s not always possible to find the time to do this, of course. But at least it seems that the European Food Safety Authority are one of the few bodies of this kind that are really on top of things.

Are we really easily fooled by claims and buzzwords on food packaging, or do you check the nutritional value of foods?

2 Comments

  1. Not really surprised by any of this have heard them all ages ago. However the fact that such claims are still able to be made is very disappointing. I wish the minister in charge would get a move on and actually instigate some clamping down on these and other fictional food claims.

  2. I don’t think (m)any of the claims are fictional, as such. The issue is the marketing spin, which is partially down to the companies but equally to people’s willingness to accept those claims uncritically – that yoghurt drink may very well have 8 million ‘good’ bacteria in it (or, 8 million of one particular species of bacteria that has been lablelled ‘good’ by the marketing team), but its usefulness to your digestive system/immune system/happiness, by itself and in the quantities and format provided by the bottles, is another thing entirely.
    Does anyone really think that these products are sold to aid our health rather than to make money? If some of them happen to aid our health, that’ll be because there’s a market for them and not because the manufacturer is taking a loss for our benefit.