Understanding Health Claims on Foods

When we glance at the labels on the foods and drinks, it isn’t always clear what the claims about health and nutrition really mean. Does the food you’re looking at, in-store or online, support your lifestyle and does it have any real health benefits? It can be hard to tell.

woman compared health claims on packaging

Research has shown that many of us find it hard to understand what health claims on packaging mean  when we’re browsing the supermarket shelves. Not only that, but many consumers don’t think that the claims on products are trustworthy. So why can’t we get clear, easy to understand messages about health on our food boxes and drink bottles?

Trying to understand the types of claims that shoppers best understand and want to see on their food is the aim of a new project, spearheaded by prestigious institutions from across Europe, called Health Claims Unpacked.

The Health Claims Unpacked project invites everyone (including you!) to get involved in cutting-edge research that will help define how health claims are presented on food and drink products.

All you need to do is spend just 15 minutes completing a series of online activities and games, including things like identifying real health claims, sorting items into a shopping basket based on their health attributes and even designing your own food pack.

By taking part in the Health Claims Unpacked project, you can learn more about the health claims you find on your everyday purchases, and the data from your participation will be used by food manufacturers to help make the wording of the health claims you see on products clearer.

What exactly is a health claim?

Health claims, as you might expect, are claims about how the food or drink could benefit your health – for example, a food containing protein may make a claim about protein helping to maintain muscle mass or a dairy food might highlight that calcium is needed for healthy bones.

Any food or drink making a claim must contain a certain amount of the nutrient or other substance that they are making a claim about, and they have to put this on the label. For vitamins and minerals, this is at least 15% of the reference intake.

How can health claims help you make healthy choices for you?

Health claims on foods are legally regulated in Europe and must be backed up by good science. The aim of this regulation is to ensure that companies cannot make misleading claims about foods and drinks and to help people make healthier choices for themselves.

The claims that are most relevant to you depend on your health priorities – for example, if you’ve had a high cholesterol reading from your GP, you may be looking out for products that can help you lower cholesterol, such as porridge oats, which contain a special type of fibre called beta-glucans.

Or, if you are conscious about your children getting all the nutrients they need to build healthy bones, you could check products like yoghurts for those that have claims about their calcium and vitamin D content – both important for bone development in children.

With more choice than ever in supermarkets, it can be tough for everyone, and particularly busy parents, to make quick and easy choices for themselves and their family.

While health claims need to meet a certain legal standard, they should also be easy to understand and informative; helping you to pick foods that can provide a known health benefit.

It’s important to remember that health claims aren’t everything – general nutrition information like calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt and fibre content is also important to bear in mind. In the UK, front of pack traffic lights are found on many products and can also help to inform food choices.

But health claims play a role, alongside this front of pack info, in helping you to select healthier choices.

Why was the Health Claims Unpacked project started?

Research into shoppers’ understanding and use of health claims has shown that many find claims on food can be hard for us to interpret. The wording of claims on packs can make it difficult for consumers to use them in any meaningful way and may also lead to distrust.

This dilemma stems from the EU regulations that determine which claims can and cannot appear on packs. The wording of these claims is designed with scientific accuracy in mind – but they are often not consumer friendly and can leave even savvy shoppers confused in the supermarket aisles or ignoring the claim completely.

One example of an official EU health claim reads:

‘Consumption of arabinoxylan as part of a meal contributes to a reduction of the blood glucose rise after that meal’

This claim is one of many that has been approved, based on strong evidence and many years of research, however, it isn’t exactly helpful to most shoppers and it’s certainly wordy to put on a food pack!

Health claims can be reworded, provided the original meaning of the claim isn’t changed, and this is where the project team comes in. They want to make sure that health claims make sense to every shopper, while still keeping the same, evidence-based meaning.

Who runs the project?

Health Claims Unpacked is an EU project, funded by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT Food) and is run by a partnership of organisations including the University of Reading, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), Food Maestro and The Technical University of Munich (TUM).

This collaboration combines expertise in nutritionists, linguists, computer programmers and designers who have worked to put together a digital platform to explore people’s understanding of claims on foods and drinks.

How can you get involved?

Head to unpackinghealthclaims.eu/ to take part in this brand new research! You can also find out more about the project and health claims by visiting healthclaimsunpacked.co.uk/, which hosts a number of other resources.

*Collaborative Post

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