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Relaxed rules urged for food health claims

Canadians are missing out on information about the relationship between diet and health as “rigid” advertising standards prevent food companies from claiming even “potential” health benefits for many products.

That’s the basis of the argument in a new research report from the Fraser Institute, in which Canadian and U.S. rules are compared to see if allowable health claims applied to foods in either country are supported by science.

“The research reviewed in this report suggests there’s a link between consuming particular foods and lowering your risk of developing certain diseases, but in Canada you won’t find the potential health benefits of many food elements printed on product labels,” said Brett Skinner, the think tank’s Toronto-based director of bio-pharma and health policy.

“Americans, on the other hand, receive much more information about the relationship between diet and health through their everyday contact with products and advertisements,” Skinner said. 

The report, written by researcher Mark Brosens, notes that Health Canada currently allows only five food advertising claims concerning reduced risks of disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows 27 such health claims.

“It can be difficult to definitively prove that a particular food element reduces the risk of developing a disease,” Brosens wrote in his report, “but the bulk of the research reviewed for this paper seems to suggest that a number of food elements are associated with health benefits.”

“Scientifically sound”

Brosens, a former Fraser intern whose academic background is in political communications, reviewed 416 academic articles analyzing the health benefits of food elements, found using the web search keywords “diet” and “health” to find papers that sought to make links between diet and health outcomes.

From his sample of articles, Brosens found 78 per cent of the conclusions identified were “in agreement” with the five permissible Canadian health claims, while 22 per cent disagreed with Canada’s approved claims.

In comparison, 64 per cent of the sample’s entries were in agreement with the 27 American health claims, while 36 per cent disagreed with those approved in the U.S.

“Brosens’s research suggests that the health claims permitted in both countries are scientifically sound,” Skinner said in the institute’s release. “But at the same time, the results show that Canada’s advertising guidelines are more restrictive.”

The U.S., on the other hand, uses a tiered “qualified health claims” system, Brosens wrote, under which scientific evidence regarding a particular food product is used to rank its medical effectiveness against qualified health claims. The rank then dictates the language an advertiser can use to make a health claim.

Brosens’s examples of the sorts of language that must be used in U.S. food health claims include:

  • “although there is scientific evidence supporting the claim, the evidence is not conclusive;”
  • “very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests;” and
  • “the FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.”

“Considering that this paper shows that the 27 permissible health claims in the U.S. are largely congruent with the scientific research, Canada should harmonize its regulations with those in the U.S.,” Brosens wrote in his report.

“If anything, a wider array of permissible health claims in Canada would give advertisers further opportunity to bring the interaction between diet and health to the public’s attention.

“This would help individuals make informed health care decisions, and would advance the discussion of preventive medicine and market dynamics, while acknowledging legitimate worries about public safety and consumer protection.”

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