In a new policy report the Consumers’ Association has called for tighter controls on ingredients, nutrition labelling, and health claims for functional foods.

The report, Functional Foods – Health or Hype?, is backed up by Health Which? research into Benecol spread, Yakult fermented milk drink, and Aviva orange juice drink. The report called for all health claims on functional foods to be proven before the products are marketed.

In a Consumers’ Association survey of perceptions of functional foods, 89 per cent of people surveyed said “I try to eat a healthy balanced diet”. But there is widespread consumer confusion about the health claims on functional foods. Another CA survey found that only three in ten people believe all of the health claims that appear on product packaging. Many consumers interviewed talked about these foods in medical terms, thinking they could help particular conditions.

New European legislation needs to be introduced for mandatory approval of health claims such as ‘maintains strong bones’ and ‘helps to lower cholesterol’ before foods are put on the market, says the Consumers’ Association. Until then, the Food Standards Agency should oversee the Joint Health Claims Initiative, a voluntary system of prior approval, says the CA report.

The report adds: “Where high doses of ‘functional’ ingredients could be toxic, safe upper limits should be set. Some vitamins known to have potentially toxic effects in large doses include vitamins A and D. Clear warnings should be given on functional foods which contain ingredients unsuitable for certain groups, such as children or pregnant women.”

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The CA also says that consumers should not be misled into eating more foods high in fat, sugar, and salt that are promoted as healthy. Limits should be set for ‘unhealthy’ ingredients in functional foods and full nutrition and ingredients labelling should be provided.

The June 2000 Health Which? reported that:
Aviva orange juice drink contains ‘nova calcium’ which may be beneficial for people who do not get calcium from dairy products, and vitamin D from sunlight. It may be better to take a supplement and avoid the added sugar in the juice drink.

Benecol spread’s added ingredients do help to lower cholesterol for people with moderately raised cholesterol levels – but at a price. A 250g tub cost £2.49, compared to the same sized pack of Flora at 55p. The Consumers’ Association recommends that where functional folds do provide proven benefits, their relatively high prices should be lowered to make them more accessible to people on lower incomes. (However, the report seems to ignore the high cost of development of such products.)

Yakult fermented milk drink claims to introduce ‘friendly’ bacteria into the digestive system, but the Consumers’ Association experts failed to agree on whether there was evidence to show that this has real health benefits.

Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers’ Association said of the report’s findings: “The good news is that most consumers want to eat a healthy diet. The bad news is that aggressive marketing of foods with added health benefits, misleading information on labels, and no mandatory system of approval for health claims means that we can’t make sensible choices on food.

“All health claims on so-called ‘functional foods’ should be proven before the products are marketed. The Food Standards Agency must closely regulate and monitor what global food and drug companies are promoting as our food and drink, and consumer safety and diet must be at the heart of their agenda.”