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Health claims require money and a lot of patience

Eating healthily and consciously is becoming ever simpler. Retailers like to respond to that trend by making very clear what it is exactly that makes the consumption of fruit and vegetables so healthy. To reinforce those claims, these are often supported by scientific research findings. How reliable are all those food and health claims?

Health claims vs food claims
Seeing how health is a serious affair, the European Union uses regulations to protect the consumer from the wildest claims. At Qfood, Pascal van Delst designs equipment that measures how many functional ingredients are in a certain piece of fruit or vegetable. Making food claims is easier than making health claims. Pascal: “When making food claims, the only thing that’s looked at is the amount of a certain substance in a given fruit or vegetable. Health claims are statements that directly link the consumption of vegetables with the influence on physical symptoms. But those claims really don’t exist for fruit and vegetables yet. The walnut is the only one of which can be said its consumption is good for the blood vessels.”

Effect hard to prove
A health claim like that, Pascal says, isn’t made in one day. “Four independent studies need to be carried out on hundreds of healthy individuals. In addition, it has to be proven that a certain effect was achieved based on the consumption of a certain ingredient. And that's not easy. In 2007, there was a study in which cancer patients were followed for 10 years, looking at the effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on their health. Whether fruit and vegetables actually improved health was difficult to prove, because people who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables pay more attention to their health anyway, so they eat less meat and exercise more. Another example is the statement that tomatoes supposedly reduce the risk of prostate cancer. If you really want to prove that, someone would have to eat tomatoes from age thirty until fifty-five. That period is far too long, and in hindsight it's very difficult to prove that the decreased risk is actually thanks to the consumption of tomatoes.”

The European law that regulates the making of claims, has been in existence since 2007, but since 2014, firmer action is taking against claims that are at the least unproven. The rules are European, which means claims from outside the European Union aren’t allowed. The Australian claim by Zespri that the kiwis are good for the bowels, cannot be used in the Netherlands. Making a real health claim takes a lot of time and a lot of money. “Doing research costs 10 years, and the costs start at 2.5 million Euro. What the payback is, is difficult to say. In the Netherlands, I only know that Koppert Cress invests in research. Together with a transplant surgeon of the Erasmus University and Rob Baan, they look at the influence of sulforaphane in broccocress on the kidneys.”

Simple healthy living
Having studies conducted is not just intended to test existing fruit and vegetables. It can also be used for targeted cultivation. Pascal: “It used to be that a test like that cost around 200 Euro. When you perform ten tests, that can get pretty expensive. For instance, Qfood tests a tomato for its lycopene content for 95 Euro. For 1000 Euro, a complete testing device can be purchased. For individual growers, that’s quite an amount, but for producer organizations it’s an attractive investment, of course.” The investment in research will have to be recovered from the consumers. “I wouldn’t start making serious claims, but rather focus on ‘simple’ ailments, like lycopene against sunburn, substances that improve stamina, and of course vitamins and minerals. In short: claims with which the consumer can simply live a healthy life.”

More information:
Pascal van Delst

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