Don’t believe the hype: manufacturers of food supplements must play fair

A new Which? investigation has revealed that consumers are wasting money on food supplements that don’t live up to the exaggerated, misleading and sometimes unauthorised health claims, that some manufacturers print on the packaging. 

Our research shows that while most companies have removed rejected health claims for supplements that have failed to gain EU approval, we’ve found a small number are still using ambiguous product packaging to promote their products.

We assessed a range of popular supplements and the claims they made on their packaging to see how they compared with what’s allowed.  Since December 2012 it has been illegal to include health claims on packaging that are not approved by the EU. The exception is for certain probiotic strains and glucosamine, which must be removed by January 2014.

Last year the UK supplement industry was valued at £385 million, yet of more than 44,000 health claims for food and food supplements that have been submitted to the EU over the past five years, only 248 have so far been authorised.

A third of consumers (33%) told us that they take food supplements regularly.  Of these, some of the most popular supplements included glucosamine and chondroitin, which are often found in products claiming to support joints, as well as prebiotics and probiotics which have been advertised as supporting healthy digestion and our immune systems.  All health claims for these supplements have been formally rejected by the EU.

Three products – Bioglan Probiotic capsules, Bimuno Prebiotic powder and Seven Seas Cardiomax, caught our attention.  All made unproven health claims on their packaging and websites.  These related to how they help maintain digestive health such as “helps maintain digestive balance” and “for a healthy heart”.

In addition we found six other food supplement products that could confuse consumers with their exaggerated and ambiguous claims.  Some have used larger font sizes and all have taken advantage of additional ingredients (such as vitamin C and/or calcium) that do have proven health claims, to imply the health benefits of all the ingredients.  These products are: Boots Digestion Support Plus, Bioglan Glucosamine Plus Chondroitin and MSM, Seven Seas Jointcare Active, Boots Joint Health Glucosamine Sulphate & Chrondroitin, Vitabiotics Jointace Original and Optima ActivJuice for Joints.

Confused consumers are likely to think the benefits of these products come from the main ingredients as heavily advertised on the packaging, which could lead to people wasting money.  For example glucosamine supplements can cost up to £1 per day, whilst a multi-vitamin could cost you as little as 3p per day.  Both could contain vitamin C which has proven health benefits as opposed to glucosamine that has none.

 Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: 

“It’s worrying that some manufacturers aren’t playing fair on the packaging of food supplements, making claims which could leave shoppers out of pocket.  Which? campaigned for health claims on these products to be backed up by scientific evidence, so it’s disappointing that manufacturers are still using clever language to imply unproven benefits.

“Consumers deserve accurate information to base their spending decisions on, particularly in the current economic climate. We would like to see all ambiguous and exaggerated claims completely removed from all food supplement packaging, so consumers can feel confident they are getting a fair deal.”

 

We offered the manufacturers named in the article the opportunity to respond to our findings – please see “Notes for Editors” point 2 below.

Notes for editors:

1.    Research Methodology: In July 2013 we assessed popular supplements and the claims they made on their packaging to see how they compared with the EU register of Health and Nutrition claims.  For the survey we asked 2,100 UK adults aged 18 and over online, about their use of supplements and their understanding of the benefits.

2.   Responses from the manufacturers on our findings: Bioglan told us it has changed its packaging to comply with the EU’s decision and new packaging without claims is now filtering through into retailers. Seven Seas said it was in the process of redesigning CardioMax packaging and will review the healthy heart statement. Optima ActivJuice and Seven Seas JointCare Active state that their claims refer only to the specific ingredients that they are authorised for. Bimuno said it believes its claims are substantiated and will resubmit them to the EU’s European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Boots and Vitabiotics did not respond.

 

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