Science - March 3, 2010

Health claims rejected

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has rejected the vast majority of the health claims for food products and supplements. Renger Witkamp, professor of Nutrition and Pharmacology, is not surprised. 'These are very sound scientists at the EFSA evaluating what are often poorly substantiated claims. There won't be many that get through.'

'The industry is in uproar about the rejected claims and is accusing the European Commission of a lack of communication and discussion. The companies would have liked to have had more opportunity to defend their case. However, you cannot really blame the EFSA. Given their mandate and the current state of knowledge, the food authority did not have much choice other than to reject most of the claims. I'm not at all surprised that the popular anti-oxidants didn't make the grade - the evidence is very thin. Even so, I didn't expect some of the other products, such as probiotic foods, to be rejected.
'Sometimes the EFSA is not so strict at all, instead applying what it calls "generally accepted scientific evidence" for the effect of some supplements. In practice, this comes down to textbook knowledge, which wouldn't necessarily pass the test of a critical investigation. This is applying double standards. It is good to be critical but I do have some sympathy for the companies, who mean well. They are right to ask for more time to provide better substantiation for their claims. But that is a huge scientific challenge. Demonstrating that a food product has a beneficial effect on health is very difficult. You have to measure and provide supporting arguments for an improvement in the health of healthy people. At present we don't have enough knowledge; we lack the right methods. Science should be given the opportunity to develop those methods. Some examples are methods for measuring increased resistance or retardation of the aging process. That will cost the industry a lot of money because such research is very expensive.'   

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