Regulations for 'quack' foods

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday November 26 2008

It is already illegal to claim that food products can treat or prevent disease

The Daily Express reports that a medical expert has warned that “gullible shoppers are wasting billions of pounds a year on ‘quack’ health foods that are useless”.

The expert says that products that claim to help combat obesity or diabetes are ineffective. He hopes new legislation introduced this year by the EU will protect vulnerable people from being “tricked into buying foods or supplements in a futile attempt to beat their disease”.

This story has been prompted by an editorial in the British Medical Journal by Professor Michael Lean. In it, he highlights how medicines and health foods are regulated differently. While medicines are stringently tested and tightly controlled, health foods are not. He said: “Nothing justifies the commercial exploitation of vulnerable patients with quack medicines.”

New EU legislation introduced this year gives rules on how these foods can be promoted. As the author states, these new rules need to be actively enforced to prevent false claims for health foods and to protect the consumer.

Where did the story come from?

Professor Michael EJ Lean, a professor of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, wrote this peer-reviewed editorial, which appeared in the British Medical Journal.

What kind of scientific study was this?

In this editorial, the author discussed new legislation regulating the claims stated on the packaging and marketing of health foods.

What were the results of the study?

Professor Lean says that unregulated health-related claims made in marketing materials for certain foods may mislead customers. He describes the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices, which came into effect in the UK in May 2008. This legislation “obliges businesses not to mislead consumers, and this includes health claims for services and products”.


He says that although medicines need to have strong research evidence to prove that they're effective and safe before they can be licensed in Europe, “food products marketed for health have largely escaped these controls”. In response to this, the Joint Health Claims Initiative was set up in the UK to develop a code of practice for health food claims, and EU legislation adopted in 2006 requires all heath claims to be “clear, accurate and substantiated”.

Professor Lean reports that although it has been illegal since 1996 for food labels to claim to treat or prevent disease, it still happens in huge numbers. Many of the “false and unsubstantiated claims” are that the product helps against obesity. About 7% of the US population buy these products every year, with £22billion spent on weight loss products in the US in 2000.

He said that, as well as explicit claims, other devices that are likely to mislead consumers can include brand names, pictures on the packaging, or testimonials from users. The new EU legislation targets this issue by listing “commercial practices considered unfair in all circumstances”, banning the use of sponsored features that are not clearly identified as advertising, and banning “misleading allusions to endorsement from professional or public bodies”.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

Professor Lean said: “Nothing justifies the commercial exploitation of vulnerable patients with quack medicines. The new regulations provide good legislation to protect vulnerable consumers from misleading health food claims.” He believes the new legislation needs to be proactively enforced.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This editorial discusses the new EU legislation regarding unfair commercial practices and its importance. It highlights the differences in how medicines and health foods are regulated and advocates this legislation as a move in the right direction. These new rules will help to prevent false medical claims for health foods, and protect the consumer.


Sir Muir Gray adds...

Be sceptical about everything you read, including this sentence.


Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

The billions we waste on health foods. Daily Express, November 26 2008

'Quack foods' that claim to aid weight loss are 'waste of money'. The Daily Telegraph, November 26 2008

Links to the science

Lean MEJ. Trading regulations and health foods. BMJ 2008; Published November 25 2008


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