Food industry still facing gap between evidence and permitted claims

Related tags Health claims Nutrition Vitamin

A British brewer has been criticised by the UK's advertising
watchdog for making a series of claims about the health benefits of
beer including suggestions that it could protect against heart

But while beer is increasingly being investigated for health benefits, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) stressed that 'medicinal' claims for foods or drinks are currently prohibited by law and the company has been ordered not to repeat the claims.

The case underlines the need for Europe-wide regulation of health claims, still a long way from reaching national legislation.

Food bodies are unable to assess the number of health claims being made by the industry each year, but increasing consumer demand for healthier foods is prompting many companies to look into the benefits of their products to gain a competitive edge.

Yet most national governments ban marketing that makes overly medical claims, such as those linking ingredients to a reduction of disease. This could be changed under new European laws but the regulation, initially proposed by the European Commission in July last year, has been the subject of heated debate in industry and parliamentary circles.

Progress has been stalled by two key articles of the draft regulation - article four and article 11. The first seeks to limit the use of health claims on foods that contain nutrients considered unhealthy, such as a high sugar or fat content. The second relates to the type of claims to be allowed, such as those relating to slimming or psychological moods or 'feeling'.

A lack of consensus on these two issues alone, and the need for further detail and clarification on the proposals, may prevent the regulation from making much headway in parliament. The environment committee is due to vote on the regulation this week, clearing the path for a full parliament vote at the end of the month. But MEP Philip Whitehead told earlier this year that he did not believe the legislation would get through all parliamentary statutes under the current term. This means discussions could start all over again in the autumn.

The ASA adjudication on the Coors leaflet, produced for distribution in a trade magazine, came at the same time as publication of a study looking into the silica content of beer, a mineral thought to protect against bone health.

There have also been studies on other health properties for beer. Coors, which said that beer drunk in moderation could 'slow down the deposition of fat on artery walls', argued that research had found that a moderate amount of alcohol in the blood improved cholesterol levels.

Beer could also 'reduce blood pressure due to its low ratio of sodium to potassium' and is an excellent source of vitamins, especially B vitamins, and minerals such as magnesium and potassium. The company provided studies that showed that beer increased the amount of vitamin B6 in the blood and that folic acid in beer might lower homocysteine levels.

While European regulation is unlikely to support health claims on alcoholic drinks, until a consensus is reached on the issue, marketing evidence of health benefits will remain a highly controversial area.

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