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Nutrition and Health Claims – The Codex Perspective

20,March, 2019


Recently, FSSAI has introduced the Advertising and Claims Regulations and most of them are based on Codex Claim structure.

Giving message about the product is part of claim and today’s food marketing cannot be completed without being claimed. Claims are nothing but benefits warranted through a food product by the seller of the food article. There are many types of claims that are used by food manufacturers to garner attention of consumers like nutrition claims and health claims.

Nutrition claims talk about the nutrient contents of the food while health claims describe the associated health benefits. There are a number of international regulations and governing bodies that regulate the use of claims on foods. They are FOSHU (Japan), EU guidelines, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (USFDA), FSSAI claim guidelines and Codex. Since Codex is recognised as the global reference for international trade and resolution of disputes by the WTO, let us consider the Codex perspective on claims.   

Codex Guidelines and Claims

The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally recognised standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety. Its texts are developed and maintained by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, established in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The implementation of Codex standards is voluntary and there is no obligation on the countries to adopt the same.

There are two guidelines in Codex that apply to the use of claims for foods namely the Codex general guidelines on claims and the Codex guidelines for the use of nutrition and health claims.

The general guidelines on claims are based on the principle that food should not be described or presented in a false, misleading or deceptive manner. In the guidelines, claim is defined as any representation which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular characteristics relating to its origin, nutritional properties, nature, production, processing, composition or any other quality. The guidelines prohibit the use of following types of claims for foods:

1. A claim suggesting that a particular food is an adequate source of essential nutrients except where such claims are permissible as per a Codex standard for well defined product or where the product has been accepted to be an adequate source of nutrients by the appropriate authorities

2. A claim implying that a balanced diet or ordinary foods cannot be an adequate source of all nutrients

3. A claim that cannot be substantiated
4. A claim suggesting that a food can be used for the prevention, alleviation, treatment or cure of a disease or disorder unless they are in accordance with the Codex standards or guidelines for Foods for Special Dietary Uses or they are permissible under the laws of the country in which they are distributed
5. A claim that could lead to doubts about the safety of similar foods or arouse fear in the mind of consumer

The guidelines also prohibit the use of potentially misleading claims. For the prevention of misleading through claims, the guidelines identify certain conditions/criteria for the use of various types of claims. Such claims are only permitted if the respective conditions attached as listed below are satisfied.

The second text i.e., the guidelines for the use of nutrition and health claims encompass the nutrition and health claims in food labelling and where required, in advertising. These guidelines are applicable to all foods bearing nutrition and health claims. As per these guidelines, unless specifically permitted in Codex standards or national legislation, nutrition and health claims cannot be made on infant foods and foods for young children.

In Codex, claims are broadly classified as nutrition claims and health claims. Nutrition claim is defined as any representation which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular nutritional properties including but not limited to the energy value and to the content of protein, fat and carbohydrates, as well as the content of vitamins and minerals. The declaration of substances in the ingredients’ list, the mention of nutrients as mandatory part of nutrition labelling or the declaration of nutrients or ingredients as per requirements of national legislation does not fall in the ambit of nutrition claims.

A nutrition claim can further be categorised into a nutrient content claim or a nutrient comparative claim.

Nutrient content claim
A nutrient content claim describes the level of a nutrient contained in a food. Claims like “source of calcium”, “no added sugar” and “free of trans fatty acids” are content claims. The guidelines provide for certain nutrient content claims along with specific conditions to be met for the claim to be employed. For a food, which is low in or free of the nutrient on which the claim is made, the term describing the level of the nutrient should not immediately precede the name of the food but should be in the form “a low (naming the nutrient) food” or “a (naming the nutrient)-free food”. Example – a salt with low sodium contents shall bear a claim saying “low sodium salt”.
Nutrient comparative claim
The other type of nutrition claim is nutrient comparative claim. A nutrient comparative claim is a claim that compares the nutrient levels and/or energy value of two or more foods. Comparison can involve claims like “reduced”; “less than”; “fewer”; “more than”. Example – “This chewable tablet contains X% more chewable calcium than brand y.”
Comparative claims should be permitted based on the following criteria and considering further preparations required for consumption depending upon the form in which food is sold.
Comparative claims
The basic requirement of comparative claims is that the foods being compared should be different versions of the same food or similar foods and the foods being compared should be clearly identified. The food must bear on the label a statement of the amount of difference in the energy value or the nutrient content.

The amount of difference related to the same quantity, expressed as a percentage, fraction or absolute value, the complete details of the comparison and the identity of the food(s) to which the food is being compared must be provided in close proximity to the comparative claim.

The comparison between the compared foods should be based on a relative difference of at least 25% in the energy value or nutrient content for macronutrients and at least 10% in case of micronutrients in the NRV and a minimum absolute difference in the energy value or nutrient content equivalent to the values specified for content claims like “low” or “a source” in the guidelines. The food label can bear the word “light” if the criteria for the word “reduced” are met and must indicate the characteristics, which make the food “light”.

The other category of claims in Codex is health claims. Health claim is defined as any representation that states, suggests or implies that a relationship exists between a food or a food constituent and health. Health claims must consist of two parts – the information on the physiological role (function) of nutrient or on an accepted diet-health relationship and that on the composition of the product relevant to the function unless the function is not linked to specific constituents of the food. Detailed principles have been developed in the guidelines to decide on the eligibility of a claim as a health claim. The claims fulfilling the set requirements are only permitted.

The health claims should be based on current relevant scientific substantiation and the proof available should be adequate for substantiating the claim. The claim should be accepted by competent authorities of the nation where the product is sold and the claimed effect should be derived from consuming a reasonable amount of the food/food constituent. In case of a claim attributed to a food constituent having a set Nutrient Reference Value, the concerned food shall be a source of / high in / low in / free of the constituent based on the recommended consumption with the conditions for such terms applicable. There should be a validated method of quantifying the food constituent that the claim is based on. The guidelines emphasise on development of clear regulatory framework for qualifying / disqualifying conditions for the use of specific claims. The label of the foods bearing health claims must incorporate all the relevant information for consumers.

The label must indicate the amount of nutrient or constituent of the food on which the claim is based along with the target group, if applicable. The proper directions for consumption to obtain the claimed benefit and caution advice for vulnerable groups, where applicable must be provided. The maximum safe intake of the food/constituent, how the food fits within the context of total diet and a statement on significance of maintaining a healthy diet must be displayed on the label.

Health claims can further be grouped into nutrient function claims, other function claims and reduction of disease risk claims.

Nutrient function claim is a claim that describes the physiological role of the nutrient in growth, development and normal functions of the body. Example: “Contains folic acid which contributes to the normal growth of foetus. Food X is a source of/ high in folic acid.” As per the guidelines, this type of claim can only be made on those essential nutrients with established Nutrient Reference Values in the Codex or the officially recognised dietary guidelines of the concerned national authority.

Other function claims – These claims concern specific beneficial effects of the consumption of foods or their constituents, in the context of the total diet on normal functions or biological activities of the body. Such claims relate to a positive contribution to health or to the improvement of a function or to modifying or preserving health.

Examples: “Vitamin C helps to enhance body’s natural defence system. Food Y contains x grams of vitamin C.”

Reduction of disease risk claims are claims relating the consumption of a food or food constituent, in the context of the total diet, to the reduced risk of developing a disease or health-related condition.

Risk reduction means significantly altering major risk factor(s) for a disease or health-related condition. Diseases have multiple risk factors and altering one of them may or may not have a beneficial effect. The presentation of risk reduction claims must ensure, for example, by use of appropriate language and reference to other risk factors, that consumers do not interpret them as prevention claims. Examples: “Adequate iron intake may reduce the risk of anaemia. Food X is enriched with iron.”
The guidelines also identify certain conditions for using claims related to dietary guidelines or healthy diets. The only claims permitted shall be the ones related to the pattern of eating contained in the dietary guidelines officially recognised by appropriate national authority. The words of the claim may be flexible as far as the pattern of eating outlined in the dietary guidelines is clearly conveyed. The foods described, as part of a healthy diet shall satisfy certain minimum criteria for other major nutrients related to the dietary guidelines and not just the selective considerations of certain aspects of the food. The foods should not be represented in a manner indicating that a food in itself will impart health. Lastly the foods may be described as part of a “healthy diet” provided that a statement connecting the food to the pattern of eating described in the guidelines is provided on the label.  
FSSAI has initiated the Food Safety and Standards (Advertising and Claims) Regulations, 2018, and most of it is derived from Codex so it would be always good for scholars to understand the Codex document on claim. To conclude, nutrition labelling can be an effective means of enabling healthful food choices by consumers, although current evidence concerning the effect of health claims on diet and public health is insufficient. Regulations can contribute to influence their potential to promote health. Thus, developing regulations with long-term dietary improvements across populations, as their underlying goal will maximise this potential of nutrition labels and health claims.

(The writer is immediate past president, AFST India. He
participated for four times in Codex meeting as part of Indian delegation. He can be contacted at prabodh1972@gmail.com)

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