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Reflections on health claims and symbols and the results of CLYMBOL

Ck zmk9W0AAkSfOIn the context of the project’s final conference, four experts from different backgrounds reflected on CLYMBOL’s results, giving their own opinions and evaluations of the current status on health claims. The panel included Olga Goulaki from the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), Pauline Castres from The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), Dirk Jacobs from FoodDrinkEurope and Rosalind Malcolm, Professor of Law from the University of Surrey. The discussion was led by Klaus G. Grunert, Professor of Marketing at Aarhus University and the scientific advisor for CLYMBOL. This article is an overview of the main discussion points from the panel.

The EU-funded FP7 project CLYMBOL is the “first of its kind looking specifically at consumer understanding in terms of nutrition, health claims and symbols” and it is “providing some very helpful information”, stated Olga Goulaki at the project’s stakeholder conference. With the Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) programme undergoing, the Regulation 1924/2006 will be assessed and CLYMBOL’s results could provide advice on next steps.

“It is a great opportunity for regulators to see what is needed in terms of ensuring that consumers are not being misled and what is needed to ensure that companies can innovate” said Dirk Jacobs. Klaus Grunert summarised that the presented findings allowed for a more realistic and modest view of the role of health claims. The effect health claims have on consumer choice, at least those currently on the market, is relatively limited as CLYMBOL results demonstrated. Their influence depends on several factors such as the claims’ relevance, the context, and people’s motivation to make healthier choices. Based on these results, Pauline Castres provoked: “Do we even need claims to improve public health? However, if they are used they should not mislead consumers.” In the past, BEUC worried that unscientific claims would end up on the market, but through the Regulation 1924/2006, the Commission has made sure that the claims on the market have been assessed efficiently by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This also includes the wording of the health claims which is based on EFSA’s scientific evaluations. There is little room to differentiate from this wording. CLYMBOL found that if people do look at the health claim, some claims are too scientific for the average consumer. “It will be extremely difficult to get a claim that is going to work for all” said Rosalind Malcolm. “The question is how to integrate the consumer perception of the claim into the regulatory process? I’m optimistic it can be done”, she continued.

Dirk Jacobs shared the industry perspective by voicing that “It is important that we have the opportunities to communicate. And often the legislation is lagging behind in allowing us to communicate”. The regulation 1924/2006 is a good step in the right direction in Dirk Jacobs’ opinion, but improvements are necessary such as more flexibility in the wording of the claims. In response, Pauline Castres and Rosalind Malcolm agreed that there are other ways to communicate with the consumers than using claims. Consumer organisations do not want unhealthy products to carry claims. Establishing nutrient profiles (points are allocated based on the nutritional composition of the food), which were originally planned to be part of the regulation, would help accomplishing this. “We need to make sure that these claims do not end up on products high in sugar, fat and salt” said Pauline Castres. Consumers want to eat sugar, but they do not want health claims on these products. Putting claims on unhealthy products will not help consumers make a healthy choice. However, the objectives of the health claim regulation were to clear the market of unscientific claims to protect consumers and to encourage innovation in the food sector. Nutrition and public health were not the primary objectives of the regulation. “If you have a regulation that is not primarily aimed at that [improving public health] then you are not going to achieve that.”, commented Rosalind Malcolm on the European health claim regulation.


Could claims be used to make people healthier?

Following the trend seen in FLABEL [another EU-funded project, on nutrition labelling], CLYMBOL demonstrated that motivation is critical for people to read and understand claims. Without motivation or interest to look at labels for information, the first critical step is missing. In general, a lack of motivation is a major barrier to making healthy choices. Developing motivation already starts at a very early stage in life and parents have the main responsibility to pass on healthy behaviour to their children in Dirk Jacob’s opinion. “Regulators, consumer groups and other stakeholders have to create and support people’s motivation to live healthy; it is not the responsibility of the industry,” said Dirk Jacobs. “Just putting a health claim on a product is very unlikely to have a major effect on consumers’ motivation to eat healthier. […] I think we have to look for other means for doing that.”, concluded Klaus Grunert.

Asked how to make people eat healthier, Rosalind Malcolm brought up the incandescent light bulb which has been banned because of its low energy efficiency. The Ecodesign Directive controls how products are made in relation to energy consumption. A ‘controlling’ directive could also be applied to the area of food. It is possible to control the nutrient content of food, e.g. by lowering the fat, sugar and/or salt content.

CLYMBOL showed that the relevance of a claim to consumers is a decisive factor. “This is important because the trend is going towards personalised nutrition,” said Dirk Jacobs. Finding out how to connect individual health goals, like lowering cholesterol, to claims will present future opportunities for the industry. BEUC sees this development in a more critical light. Tailored diets would raise many more questions while they believe there are some issues that should be solved before raising more questions.

Price is also an important factor. There are huge health inequalities in Europe and people, especially with low incomes, need to eat healthier diets. A healthy diet should be the easily accessible and affordable. This is not currently the case, according to Pauline Castres.

In addition, people today live in an age of information overload. Health claims, therefore, have a limited effect as they are competing with countless other information. “We should look not only at the claims […] but the overall strategy around the product” said Pauline Castres. “Beyond food packaging, there is the influence of internet and TV which say the wildest things about food, about nutrients, about diets,” remarked Dirk Jacobs about the broader context in which consumers receive information. “We really have to push more to improve health literacy” he continued, “I am really convinced that people that are more conscious about their health, that are more literate about their health, will also engage more in physical activity, will also be more keen to look into personal health objectives”. Olga Goulaki agreed that increased awareness of the importance of health could help to trigger healthy eating.

Even though the effect of health claims on people’s choices is limited, the role of health claims can be improved as CLYMBOL showed in several studies. This can be achieved by optimising their relevance, their understandability and tailoring them to specific consumer groups, to whom they may be especially relevant. Public health and commercial organisations can all contribute to improve the current situation.


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