by Marion Nestle
Feb 28 2010

European decisions on health claims: Vitamins, yes. Antioxidants, no.

Thanks to Anita Laser Reutersward in Sweden for forwarding the most recent decisions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on  petitions for health claims.

Health claims are vitally important to food marketers.  Evidence: they have filed 44,000 petitions with EFSA to date.  EFSA consolidated these into 4,185 claims.  It is dealing with them in batches.

EFSA did not approve many of the 416 petitions in this latest batch :

Experts issued unfavourable opinions on most of the claims in the second series due to the poor quality of the information provided to EFSA including:

  • Lack of information to identify the substance on which the claim is based, e.g. “probiotics”
  • Lack of evidence that the claimed effect is indeed beneficial to the maintenance or improvement of the functions of the body (e.g. food with “antioxidant properties”)
  • Lack of human studies with reliable measures of the claimed health benefit

Its decisions about antioxidants are especially interesting in light of claims on products in American supermarkets.  Under EFSA rules, this Kellogg package would not be allowed.

In its decision, EFSA said:

“On the basis of the data presented, the Panel concludes that a cause and effect relationship has not been established between the consumption of the food(s)/food constituent(s) evaluated in this opinion and (1) a beneficial physiological effect related to antioxidant activity, antioxidant content, or antioxidant properties, and (2) the protection of body cells and molecules such as DNA, proteins and lipids from oxidative damage.”

My translation: EFSA panels took a good hard look at the science and could not find evidence for benefits at the physiological or molecular levels from taking antioxidant supplements or eating foods with antioxidants.

I can’t wait to see how food manufacturers respond.

March 1 update: here come the comments.  According to, EFSA rejected health claims for:

vitamin D, probiotics, green tea, black tea, lutein, beta glucans, meso-zeaxanthin, alpha-lipoic acid, melatonin, peptides, xanthan gum, sugar-free gum, guar gum, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), fermented whey and linoleic acid.

These decisions “came as a massive blow to the European and international functional foods and nutraceuticals industries, especially the herbal antioxidant and probiotic sectors, which have yet to see a positive NDA opinion.”

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  • Although they are stating that there is no evidence of a direct correlation between antioxidants and psychological or molecular improvement, it doesn’t negate the years of research behind the idea that antioxidants help with the prevention of aging as well as getting the majority of people healthy and keeping them that way.

    If you take any one idea, it can most always not have a “direct correlation” and yet it can still be a solid idea. Look at “The O2 Diet” written by Keri Glassman. She explains all kinds of benefits the body gets from antioxidants.

    Also check out my blog on the subject:

  • JE

    The emerging science in favor of antioxidants continues unabated. At least government agencies can’t prevent us from reading about studies like this one:

  • Subvert

    Down with all the marketing and corporate sponsored ‘health and diet research’ I say! Nice to see that the EU governing body giving some pushback to the panacea pushers.

    I wouldn’t argue that foods ‘naturally’ high in antioxidants are good foods, because they are whole fresh foods in their ‘natural’ form. My problem is with all the energy and marketing that go into fortifying processed health food (junk food) with ingredients after the fact. I find it hard to buy the whole natural/health foods claim business…

    Health claims are marketing tools to put a shine on supposedly ‘better for you’ junk food and sell it at a premium price. Does anyone really think that, for example, a processed beverage with ‘antioxidants’ added back to it post process is better than eating the real fruit, or fresh squeezed equivalent..?! At least an orange or apple tastes good…

  • Anthro

    Nice post Subvert! And a good reminder that FOOD is the best place to obtain antioxidants.

    The term “emerging science” seems to be the latest marketing ploy for the add-it-back-to-cheap-food-and-charge-more crowd. No references to large, well-controlled, peer-reviewed and published studies are ever cited.

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  • there are lots of cheap foods on the market that taste like crap but there are good quality ones too ~

  • you can always buy cheap foods on any supermarket these days because food production is mechanized already ”.