New Rules on Food Health Claims

The retail highway to health is increasingly crowded with science-backed and government-allowed health claims. But then, what’s in a claim?

By Kantha Shelke and Rakesh Amin

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Formulation with whole grains accelerated early in 2004, primarily in anticipation of the new Dietary Guidelines. General Mills (www.generalmills.com), Minneapolis, converted all its cereal formulations to whole-grain. Nestlé (www.nestle.com), New Milford, Conn., launched a 100-percent whole-grain frozen entrée line. Sara Lee Bakery Group (www.saralee.com), Chicago, released Soft and Smooth whole-grain white bread made with ConAgra Foods Ingredients' Ultragrain white whole wheat flour. The wheat, milled with an extra refining step from hard white winter wheat, makes whole-grain products that resemble those from refined wheat.

Companies such as General Mills have introduced new descriptors for whole-grain products. These include "excellent source" (16 g or more per serving), "good source" (8-15 g) or "made with" (at least 8 g). In May 2004, the company submitted a "Whole-Grain Descriptive Claims Citizen Petition" to the FDA with suggestions to raise the threshold level for "good" and "excellent source" of whole-grain ingredients from 5 g to 8 g and 10 g to 16 g, respectively.

The proposition allows the whole-grain health claim to apply exclusively to only very high-density flour/low-moisture products, such as dry cereals and crackers. In June 2005, ConAgra publicly highlighted that the petition essentially sought to create a whole new category of foods for which content claims can be made - in this case "whole grains and whole-grain ingredients" - and urged that the criteria for whole-grain content claims remain as already established.

Condition-Driven Claims

Heart health is attracting two conflicting ingredient strategies. One leverages "hidden nutritional assets" - nutrition marketing of the intrinsic benefits of foodstuffs already available to consumers. This approach has worked well for General Mills. The heart-health claim of whole-grain products has resulted in double-digit volume growth for products like Cheerios.

The other strategy focuses on demonstrating the effectiveness of specific new ingredients with heart health or cholesterol-lowering potential, incorporated into foods that generally do not contain these ingredients in significant amounts. Plant sterols and stanol esters are the most conspicuous examples of where unique, patent-protected and branded ingredients are positioned to command premium prices from the heart-health-conscious market. But "heart health" and "cholesterol-lowering" claims may no longer be an advantage, considering the FDA’s generic health claims for heart health in connection with a number of other ingredients, such as soy and oats.

One of the earliest health claim types, claims of cholesterol-lowering ability/improved heart health, is still eagerly applied. One example of an emerging claim in this arena is the proprietary, cholesterol-lowering plant sterol Reducol from Forbes Medi-Tech, Vancouver, B.C. With backing from commodity giant Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur, Ill., Reducol recently received European Commission approval for use in margarine, fermented milk-type products, soy drinks, low-fat cheese products, yogurt products, sauces and dressings.

Omega-3s remain something of a niche product due to FDA's lukewarm endorsement language and consumers' inability to distinguish between types of omega-3s.

From Fish to Nuts

The FDA-approved qualified health claim for omega-3 oils was "B quality" language, according to industry leaders, despite what they believed was "A quality" scientific justification. Disappointed omega-3 vendors, much like walnut growers (recipients of the first new "qualified" claim granted by the FDA; see "Responsible Use" sidebar below), blame the claim for sluggishness of manufacturers to field new omega-3 ingredients.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from fish oil, proven the most effective types of omega-3s, are still not differentiated from less expensive and less effective forms of omega-3s by the average consumer. Moreover, the terms DHA or EPA on the label do not translate value to most consumers.

In light of the new qualified claim, there is little incentive for companies to change from less expensive, plant-derived omega-3s to the higher efficacy, higher-cost marine omega-3s.

Omega-3s, while a big hit with the medical profession and in dietary supplement aisles, are most likely to remain niche products despite having an approved health claim.

Effective use of a health claim involves more than just slapping it onto a label. Creative technology and clever branding can overcome such hurdles as misperceived or unclear perceptions.

Simplifying label "legalese" has not helped DHA-fortified Intelligent Eating Healthy Eggs from Stonegate Farms. The British egg market leader presented health claims in simple, clear words: "Omega-3 DHA is proven to play a role in: brain development and structure, eye structure and maintenance, heart health and maintenance." Yet the eggs remain at the fringe, mirroring the story of omega-3 food products in the U.S.

Technological advances preserve sensitive fish oil while neutralizing taste and aroma for non-traditional applications such as bakery products or beverages. National Starch Food Innovation (www.foodinnovation.com), Bridgewater, N.J., released Novomega, an odorless, tasteless encapsulated long-chain omega-3 powder. Nova Scotia-based Ocean Nutrition (www.ocean-nutrition.com) also produces concentrated omega-3s used in applications requiring a neutral flavor profile.

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