Healthy food, natural food, food that is good for the digestion or the immune system, food that keeps you fit or gives you energy, food that lowers your cholesterol or food that helps burn fat and lose weight.
Food advertising is fancy and simple which is probably why it works despite being bogus for the most part. This also explains the large investments by big food and drink companies in promoting healthy labels, one example being PepsiCo and its ‘taking stock of the obesity pandemic’ (John Seabrook in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011).
When the European Commission decided in 2006 to take a closer look at health and nutrition claims and proceeded to establish a legal basis for this, it received 44,000 claims to check. These were clustered in some 4,000 categories and submitted for evaluation to the European Food Safety Authority. About two weeks ago, a list of 222 valid health claims and 1,600 rejected ones was provisionally approved by the European Parliament when its Committee on Consumer Protection blocked a long-standing veto campaign.
Once the list of banned health claims becomes publicly available, the various food operators affected will have six months to get rid of bogus or misleading labels from their products.
Consumer organizations like the UK-based ‘Which?’ have welcomed the Parliament’s decision in contrast to the ‘Alliance for Natural Health,’ which represents the interests of nutritional supplement companies as well as those producing anti-aging products or providing so-called nutritional, ‘ecological’ and ‘integrative’ medicine. Interestingly, the currently perhaps most powerful umbrella organization of the food industry, namely ‘FoodDrink Europe,’ has welcomed the Parliament’s decision. ‘FoodDrink Europe’ represents big food and drink corporations like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, Nestlé and Danone.
The regulation of food labeling is a difficult policy domain still on the lookout for an effective strategy in its hide-and-seek game with the food industry. The EU health claims list will perhaps help get rid some of the obvious bogus claims, but it will not resolve the fundamental problem of manipulative advertising. Consider, for instance, how little is known about the extra value(s) of ‘superior quality’ labels promoted by several supermarket chains; or the motivation behind the decision by the Mars company to reduce the portions of their chocolate products by the end of 2013 so that no single portion has more than 250 calories, whereby the price is unlikely to follow suit.
According to nutritional scientists a balanced diet is the key to good health and this need not exclude foods one likes just as it does not have to include foodstuffs rich in supplements. Sounds simple, but unfortunately it is not fancy, which is probably why health claims are likely to remain a lucrative business.