Health claims on food labels are claims by manufacturers of food products that their food will reduce the risk of developing a disease or condition. For example it is claimed by some manufacturers of oat cereals that oat bran can reduce cholesterol which may lower the chances of developing serious heart conditions.

A qualified health claim is slightly different. It must be supported by credible scientific evidence regarding a relationship between a substance (specific food or food component) and a disease or health-related condition.

When I was child I was told that fish before exams would help my brain, a bowl of All Bran would move my bowels and liver was good for my blood. I certainly didn’t question this as it was reaffirmed by my mother, grandmother and my school. These so called early health claims certainly have some basis in truth in very generalised terms. However fast forward 30 years and we are inundated by health claims about nutrition on a daily basis. It’s frustrating and confusing enough being told diverse information about what we should or should not eat without an added extra bonus. However I do think the low fat, sugar free message has at last trickled down to most people but still that narrative is being pushed to the public, it’s still being made and it’s still being manufactured and people are still buying it.

I’m astonished that anyone can make any rational sensible choices walking round a supermarket these days with the utter bunkum on some of the products we buy. To be honest unauthorised health claims make my blood boil. Some of the claims are so daft and so obvious e.g. a nice sugary snack bar with the words “natural” on it  (a non specific term that means nothing) or “packed full of goodness” (another bete noire of mine) but still we buy them.

Here is a list of other nonsense terms and some of the foods they come from and the claims they make. Here are some of my favourites:

Made with real honey  (as opposed to what?)

Heart healthy (by whose standards and what does this really mean?)

100% natural (total hogwash)

Made with real fruit  (instead of fake fruit?)

Antioxidant plus (er wot?)

Healthy Kids (can you send me a statement as to why this product is good for my kid?)

Lowers your cholesterol by 4% in 6 weeks (you’ve got to be kidding right?!)

Helps block cholesterol (really? ok ..I thought that’s what statins did and a small bowl of this will do the same? er can I see your trials please?)

Reduces the risk of osteoporosis (ok so how much of this yogurt do I buy in order to stop my bones crumbling, and if I eat six pots a day every day for 10 years and I get osteoporosis with no genetic back history in my family can I sue you?). 

Recently a well known yogurt company had to change their copy and wording on the promise of what their yogurts did to our poorly guts – it was all utter tosh but we bought into the concept quite happily. 

There’s a lot of nonsense on sugary cereal packets as well:

Great fuel for the body  – (are you saying my kid will become hyperactive because your product contains 40% sugar?)

Improves digestive health (sorry say again.. how sugar improves my digestive health?)

Seriously how stupid do the manufacturers think we are? They are trying to hoodwink us when we are rushed, stressed and haven’t got time to get our reading glasses out and get all Columbo about the facts in front of us. Although some of us berate the EU for their over regulations regarding our life, The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) have been clamping down on such nonsense for the last ten years, and I for one think this is a great move forward. Can you imagine how busy they have been?

So, a food that says “high in fibre” can’t, unless it contains 6g per 100g. No more “contains vitamin C” unless you can prove it has 6mg per 100g. “ High in vitamin C” and it needs to be 12mg per 100g. Most consumers will know that fibre is good for our bowels and vitamin C prevents scurvy but what about something more complex like antioxidants for example – do we know enough about them to make a judgement whether a product is really full of them or not? Some manufacturers are nothing less than ridiculous in their astounding claims about cell healing, gut healing, keeping you alkaline, lowering this, raising that… Big big claims.

The first thing to remember when you are walking round the supermarkets stressed, time poor and ready to grab the first thing you see off the shelves is simple ingredients. Take two packets of crisps next door to each other in the food aisles. Less ingredients usually means healthier… end of. Anything that is making claims, I would put back on the shelf. Let’s face it, a humble cabbage sitting on the vegetable aisle is making no claims at you. The more you buy in packets the more claims you will have to wade through.

Let’s take two packets of crisps as an example:

One brand contains: Potatoes, sunflower oil, salt. This brand has no health claims.
The other has: Potato starch, sunflower oil (30%), cheese flavour, whey powder (from milk), flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, disodium 5’ -ribonucleotide), flavouring, milk powder, cheese powder, butter acids, soya protein, colour (paprika extract)], rice flour, soya flour, salt, yeast, onion powder (malt flour from barley), pepper, wheat flour, colour (annatto).

This brand had health claims of no added sugar.

What we can see from this example is the simpler version of the crisp didn’t say anything, the more complex, less healthy version did.

Cafes and chains have a lot to answer for as well. Juices, smoothies and shakes claiming all sorts of nonsense from promoting gut flora to ingredients for longevity are very dubious. If you then go to the their websites there will be more nonsense about their valued nutritionist that they have employed who can show the research that your liquidised kermit in a cup has extraordinary anti ageing properties and your knees will be bendy forever and you will be as energised as a kid that’s been given keys to willy wonkas factory. The reality is that you’ve just spent £4 on something to give you a bit of a lift that you will consume on the run as you are too busy to put an egg on a piece of toast. 

Another bug bear I have is the packets and packets of powders and green foods encouraged by the new health gurus that are usually sprawled across my various offices by patients showing me their daily usually highly expensive supplement plan. The fact that the patient is in my office unwell and taking these powders should tell you everything you need to know. These are usually eaten by people who have super healthy diets anyway, now isn’t that ironic? Keeping things simple is key to health claims and food labelling. Vulnerability is another key player – when we are sick, we are vulnerable and will buy into a lot more nonsense than when are well and thinking straight. All the news rules made by the EU to protect us from all this have been taken up by the trading standard offices and for every new one they find, another one they haven’t come across emerges. Trust your instincts. Like fashion food has trends and fads. We’ve seen wheat grass shots, goji berries and coconut as the new kids on the blocks. However, sometimes a classic jaguar coat is better. So if a food is implying that it can treat prevent or cure a medical condition put it back. If it’s screaming messages at you at how natural it is, if it were, it wouldn’t have to. I’ve never seen a bottle of olive oil claiming anything… and it really does have a lot to sing and dance about.