Any organisation involved in advertising food products must be aware that key changes have recently taken effect in how the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) approaches health claims made in advertisements for food products.

On 14 December 2012, European Commission Regulation (EU) No. 432/2012 establishing a list of permitted health claims for use on foods came into force (Regulation). Under the Regulation a register of accepted health claims is to be maintained (the Register). To reflect this change the ASA has adopted a new stricter regime in the way that it considers health claims on food product advertising.

“Health” claims are those that refer to a relationship between a food and health such as “helps maintain normal blood cholesterol levels”. “Nutrition” claims refer to the nutritional benefit of a food such as “high in fibre”. The new approach already applies to the way the ASA treats nutrition claims.

Until December, complaints about health claims for foods were considered under the ASA's general rules on misleading advertising. The ASA will now assess health claims for foods against the specific sections on food which refer to the Regulation. In summary, these state that only health claims authorised in the Register are acceptable, and advertisers must submit documentary evidence to show that the conditions specified in the Register are met. Claims are being authorised gradually so the previous rules will continue to apply to claims not yet decided until the European Commission reaches a decision on their acceptability.

Food advertisers should be aware of the following to avoid being in breach:

  • When a general health claim is made, for example “good for you”, this must be accompanied by a specific authorised health claim from the Register explaining why the product is good for you, such as “…because it contains iron which contributes to normal oxygen transport in the body”. 
  • There is likely to be a wide interpretation of “general health claims”. This will mean that many common terms such as “superfood” and “wholesome” are also likely to be captured by the new requirement. 
  • Register claim wording can only be amended to help consumers understanding but the same meaning must be kept. Care must be taken to ensure the claim is not exaggerated For example an authorised claim for calcium in the Register is “calcium contributes to normal blood clotting”. This could be changed to “calcium supports normal blood clotting” but “calcium optimises normal blood clotting” would be an exaggeration and not acceptable. 
  • Evidence must be held that the food product contains the required quantity of an ingredient to meet the conditions of use specified in the Register for that product. 
  • The claim must be made in relation to the relevant nutrient only, not the brand. The claim “BranWheaties contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue” would be in breach, but an advertiser could state “iron contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue”. 
  • The Register may stipulate the quantity of product that needs to be consumed to obtain the benefit claimed and this must be made clear. For example if stating “vitamin C contributes to maintaining the normal function of the immune system during and after intense physical exercise” the advertiser must also state “that this beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 200mg in addition to the recommended daily intake of vitamin C”. 
  • It is also worth considering whether a claim could be amended to a permissible nutritional claim (eg, “sugar-free”) as nutritional claims have less stringent controls.