Christmas is notoriously a season of indulgence and excess – but not every festive food is devoid of beneficial nutrients. Not only are several traditional festive foods delicious, but they can also be highly nutritious. In fact, a few Christmas foods even qualify for certain EU health claims – for example, oranges are high in vitamin C, which contributes to normal psychological function. Health claims suggest or imply that a relationship exists between a food category, a food (or one of its constituents) and health. The use of such statements in relation to foods and drinks sold within the EU is regulated.
The Regulation of Health Claims
If a manufacturer intends to use a new health claim on their product, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) provides an opinion, based on all the scientific research that is submitted in support of a claim, which the European Commission (EC) then authorises or rejects, taking into account EFSA’s opinion. Out of thousands of submissions that pass through EFSA and the EC, very few are authorised, meaning any claim must be able to endure strict scrutiny. Under the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation, foods must contain a meaningful amount of a nutrient, to be eligible to use relevant authorised health claims (e.g. 15% of the reference intake for vitamins and minerals; foods meeting this can be described as a ‘source of’ that particular nutrient) and there may also be additional conditions of use (for example, particular information must be supplied to consumers alongside some health claims). However, even though the scientific evidence is evaluated and there are criteria for the use of health claims that must be met, research has shown that consumers often find health claims hard to understand or trust.
For example, 440 people responded to a poll that took place on the Food Unfolded Instagram account asking: “Do you think claims on food labels are based on solid scientific evidence?”.
79% selected the answer “It’s just marketing”.
The Relaunch of Health Claims Unpacked
In order to address the fact that consumers may have either low understanding and/or low trust in health claims on food packs, the EIT Food-funded Health Claims Unpacked project has recently relaunched their digital platform to collect data on consumer preferences around the wording and presentation of health claims on food labels. This information will be used to create a business hub, which will provide food manufacturers with insights into ways of communicating health claims that are likely to resonate best with everyday consumers.
The Health Claims Unpacked project enables consumers to learn more about what a health claim is and design their own labels for different food products
This information can be used alongside country-specific guidance documents on the communication of claims, which are based on the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation.
Health claims at Christmas
Given that the festive season is upon us, we explored which Christmas foods can provide a welcome dose of fibre, vitamins and minerals on the big day:
- Despite being much maligned due to their divisive flavour, Brussels sprouts are highly nutritious and a welcome splash of green on a Christmas dinner plate. Sprouts are not only high in fibre, but also folate and vitamins C and K. Vitamin K contributes to normal blood clotting and the maintenance of normal bones*. Plus, sprouts are also a source of potassium and vitamin B6 – real nutritional powerhouses! They also pair wonderfully with…
- …chestnuts! These seasonal favourites are a source of potassium, which contributes to the maintenance of normal blood pressure. Why not dust off the nutcracker and try some other nuts too? Walnuts are high in magnesium and vitamin E, which can contribute to the protection of cells from oxidative stress and Brazil nuts are not only high in the above, but in potassium and selenium too. Selenium contributes to the normal function of the immune system.
- Carrots and parsnips have health at their root. Carrots are orange due to the carotenoids they contain, which our bodies can convert to retinol (the active form of vitamin A). Vitamin A contributes to the maintenance of normal vision (although the idea that eating a bunch of carrots will dramatically increase your night vision is sadly a myth). Parsnips are a source of both vitamin C and folate, the latter of which contributes to normal psychological function and blood formation.
- These days you might expect toys, games and maybe a book or two in the bottom of a stocking, but traditionally, citrus fruits such as oranges and tangerines regularly found themselves nestled down there too. These fruits are famously high in vitamin C, which contributes to normal functioning of the nervous system. Why not try other seasonal fruits such as dates or cranberries? But watch out for products containing cranberries, as many add a lot of sugar!
*All health claims in bold can be found at Europa.eu here
Making sense of health claims
What do all the foods listed above have in common (aside from their Yuletide associations)? They all qualify for at least one EU health claim (shown in bold). But are these messages getting through to consumers?
The Health Claims Unpacked project has been gathering data on consumer preferences for the wording of EU health claims since 2019. The project is funded by EIT Food and led by linguists at the University of Reading, in partnership with colleagues at The Technical University of Munich, the British Nutrition Foundation and Food Maestro.
The digital platform that has been developed was first rolled out last year in the UK. Findings from the first iteration have already unearthed insights into consumer preferences. For example, the use of verbs rather than nouns in claims has been shown to resonate more clearly with consumers (e.g. ‘Calcium is needed to maintain healthy bones’, rather than ‘…needed for the maintenance of healthy bones’). The preliminary results have informed the creation of the second version of the digital platform, which has launched in four languages (English, French, German and Polish) and includes new activities and an updated interface.
Watch the video to learn how the Health Claims Unpacked project is helping consumers to understand labels on food packaging through their digital platform
Data collection from the new digital platform is ongoing – we are looking for keen volunteers to give us their views on health claims. If you want to help us to generate more data from this ground-breaking research, please direct interested consumers to www.unpackinghealthclaims.eu where they can make a valuable contribution.
Project lead, Professor Rodney Jones from the University of Reading explains:
“Already we have been able to use initial findings from the research to gain a better understanding of what consumers look for when it comes to health claims on food packages. By the end of this project, we hope to have developed an insightful, data-driven resource that will enable the food industry to communicate health claims more effectively.”
The overall goal of the project is to improve the communication of health claims on pack, which could ultimately help consumers to make healthier choices, even during the festive season!
Find out more
To learn more about the project, the project team have given an insightful webinar which is suitable for those working with health claims, particularly food industry professionals, which you can watch on demand here. You can also visit the project website here for more information about food labelling and the project.
Finally, we have developed a British Nutrition Foundation resource explaining health claims that is suitable for consumers. Learn more here