by Marion Nestle
Apr 16 2009

Europe demands scientific support for health claims. Why can’t we?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3′s: “supportive but not conclusive evidence  shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” [my emphasis].  The FDA allows omega-3′s to be added to infant formulas, but here’s what it says about them:  “The scientific evidence is mixed…There are no currently available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.”

The EFSA interprets all this as unworthy of a health claim.

What can the FDA do?  If it says there isn’t enough evidence, it gets sued and loses.  The courts tend to rule that food companies can say whatever they like about health benefits on the grounds of free speech and the First Amendment.

In January, the FDA published “guidance” for industry about how it plans to evaluate the scientific basis of health claims.     Guidance is just that.  It is non-binding.

Hello new administration.  How about taking a fresh look at the health claims situation and paying close attention to what regulators in Europe are doing.  How about considering just saying no to health claims.


I simply avoid all food or supplements that make any health claims. Also, if the manufacturer put any nutrients in the food, I also try to avoid that. Like sugar cereals that are somehow healthy because Post adds 13 vitamins and minerals to them.

[...] in Business, Congress, Daily life, Food, Health, Science at 6:01 pm by LeisureGuy For example, Marion Nestle in Food Politics: The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to [...]

  • RTAddison
  • April 17, 2009
  • 11:12 am

By rights, we should also demand that RDs, and ‘nutritionists’ provided peer-reviewed research documentation for the health claims THEY make.

  • sid
  • April 17, 2009
  • 3:49 pm

Um, because americans are uncritical enough that they can and should be sold anything that anyone with no scruples wants to sell them? (ref: see Hummer, pringles chips, war in iraq, sub-prime mortgages, etc).

[...] No “hearth healthy” soup for you! Nutritionist Marion Nestle wants the Obama Administration to take a cue from what regulators in Europe are doing — and just say no to label health claims. (Food Politics) [...]

[...] author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health, wrote a spot-on blog post arguing that we should only allow health claims on labels if they’re actually backed by real [...]

[...] And then there is the troubling matter of whether antioxidants make a demonstrable difference to health.  The European Food Standards Agency has been turning down health claims for antioxidants like mad.  As I discussed on April 16, 2009: [...]

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