'Health' claims made on food labels often leave consumers confused or unclear about the properties of the products, Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) reports, following the conclusions of research commissioned by the agency.
Health claims 'are of interest and relevance to consumers', the research finds, but consumers' understanding of them is 'often more partial and confused than they believe it to be'.
Because they have other priorities, consumers often respond to the claims on labels in a non-scientific way and look at them 'in a wider and often "fuzzy" context', concluded the report.
The research was commissioned following discussions on a draft European Commission proposal for EU legislation to control the use of health claims in food labelling.
The agency said it welcomes the EC's move to harmonise the rules on the regulation of claims as controls at an EU level would increase consumer protection and consumer choice. Currently, controls on health claims for food labelling and advertising are not harmonised at a European Community level.
The commission's draft proposal identified different categories of health claims and suggested ways in which they might be regulated. The FSA research sought to establish whether consumers differentiate between these different types of claims.
The agency said it aims to contribute to the development of a regime that enables labels to carry truthful information, that does not mislead and does not undermine efforts to promote healthy lifestyles. Its research considered consumer understanding of a range of claims, including some similar to those already in use.
In the UK, health claims are not subject to specific national rules. The FSA currently supports the self-regulatory Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI) developed by industry, consumer groups and law enforcement bodies, which defines good practice and establishes a system for validation of claims.
The agency's research report, which will be made available to the European Commission and Member States, is expected to contribute to development of ideas for a new regulatory regime on health claims.