The health food industry has called into question a new Which? investigate, which claimed supplement manufacturers are misleading consumers with unauthorised health claims.
The organisation released a new report, suggesting that shoppers are wasting money on food supplements, which, they say, don’t live up to exaggerated, misleading and sometimes unauthorised health claims that some manufacturers print on the packaging.
But the report has attracted fierce criticism, being described as inaccurate by the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA).
In the report, while acknowledging that most companies have removed rejected health claims for supplements that have failed to gain EU approval, Which? claimed that a small number are still using ambiguous product packaging to promote their products.
In the research, Which? found that a third of consumers (33 per cent) take food supplements regularly. Of these, some of the most popular supplements included glucosamine and chondroitin, as well as prebiotics and probiotics. Which? stated that all health claims for these supplements have been formally rejected by the EU under the Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation.
It went on to name three products, Bioglan Probiotic capsules, Bimuno Prebiotic powder and Seven Seas Cardiomax, as catching its attention for, it said, making unproven health claims on packaging and websites. In addition, Which? said it found six other food supplement products that could confuse consumers with exaggerated and ambiguous claims, some using larger font sizes and all taking advantage of additional ingredients (such as vitamin C and/or calcium) that do have proven health claims, to imply the health benefits of all the ingredients.
Which? Executive Director, Richard Lloyd, said: “It’s worrying that some manufacturers aren’t playing fair on the packaging of food supplements, making claims which could leave shoppers out of pocket. Which? campaigned for health claims on these products to be backed up by scientific evidence, so it’s disappointing that manufacturers are still using clever language to imply unproven benefits.
“Consumers deserve accurate information to base their spending decisions on, particularly in the current economic climate. We would like to see all ambiguous and exaggerated claims completely removed from all food supplement packaging, so consumers can feel confident they are getting a fair deal.”
Responding to the report, Graham Keen, Executive Director of the HFMA, said: “Consumers in the UK should be advised that this new report regarding health claims on food supplements is inaccurate as it infers that manufacturers are misleading their customers – which is simply not true. Just because a certain ingredient does not have an EFSA-approved claim does not mean that it doesn’t have a beneficial effect. The report ignores the significant efforts by UK manufacturers to comply with the regulation as well as still provide factual information about what their products do and how they work.
“The huge quantity of claims that have been ‘rejected’ is largely a result of EFSA applying an inappropriate pharmaceutical-style assessment to generic health maintenance claims on food ingredients, an approach usually used for assessing illness-related claims on drugs, which are obviously completely different. Consequently, the list of unauthorised claims ignores the genuine value and evidence behind these products.
“Furthermore, notwithstanding this new EU regulation, the UK food supplement industry already operates in one of the toughest regulatory environments in the world and as such, sets a gold standard in terms of product quality and efficacy. There is a fine line between tough regulation and over-regulation, and the industry is doing everything it can to comply with the significant requirements of this legislation, impacting every form of communication from labelling, promotion material, advertising, leaflets and websites.”
Keen went on: “The sad fact is that the regulation is putting a halt on many hundreds of proportionate and substantiated claims on products that have been well understood and accepted by the average consumer for decades – such as ‘dietary fibre helps maintain a healthy digestive system’ and ‘glucosamine helps maintain healthy joints’. As a result, the legislation is, unfortunately, counterproductive as it denies consumers the very information that they need in order to make informed choices about how and why these products might be used, and what reasonable expectations they might have for their effectiveness.”
CHC Director of Strategy, Chris Whitehouse, added: “Which? are highlighting the disproportionate and overly burdensome regulations imposed on the specialist health food sector by the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation. CHC will be stepping up its efforts to provide accurate information to consumers about the benefits of vitamin, mineral, botanical and other food supplements so that they can continue to make informed choices about the products that they choose and the benefits that they can reasonably expect to achieve by doing so.
“Now, more than ever, consumers will be turning to CHC as a trusted, impartial third party source of information and advice.”
And Wendy Atkinson, Chair of the National Association of Health Stores (NAHS), said: “Yet another sensationalist headline from the media, written by journalists who know very little about the subject, or our industry, something we have had to deal with for years. Some journalists seem to be very lazy these days; rather than looking into a subject such as NHCR, which is not fit for purpose and reporting on its inadequacy, they just care about headlines.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a newspaper print a headline praising this industry, the many fabulous products we sell and all the hardworking, caring individuals within it – now that would be headline!”
Also highly critical of the report was PharmaCare, which owns the Bioglan brand. In a statement, the company said: “We are astounded at the stance Which? has taken in this article. It is reminiscent of Daily Mirror-style sensationalist pieces, written with total lack of balanced views. Why was the industry association HFMA not contacted to express their views in regards to this to provide a balanced opinion? Perhaps Which? were concerned someone may present an evidence-based counter argument and may put their whole article in disarray?
“Moreover, we feel the article is plainly insulting consumers’ intelligence by stating packaging is confusing and insinuating consumers are incapable of making intelligent decisions in terms of choosing what they do and don’t want to consume. Glucosamine, for example, has proven health benefits, although not adopted by EFSA, can be prescribed and recommended by doctors and healthcare professionals and even provided on prescription. Surely Which? are not suggesting that a doctor’s prescription is for an unproven product?
“In the same breath, Which? is making a point of stating vitamin C is a cheaper and indeed more effective way to look after one’s joints as opposed to glucosamine, whilst at the same time stating that excessive consumption of the said vitamin leads to unpleasant side effects. As a consumer I wouldn’t know what to do, or what Which? were suggesting.
“Any concerned consumer can search through multiple trusted scientific literatures to find the benefits of the supplements. We are very disappointed with the way Which? have approached this subject. We always held the publication in high regards, however, this article proves otherwise.”