An apple a day? New rules on food health claims

29 January, 2013

The ASA has published new rules requiring food health claims to be authorised and backed by evidence.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) used to police claims made by advertisers about the health benefits of food and drink using rules based on misleading information. However, after the recent introduction of an EU regulation (No. 432/2012) setting out what are permitted health claims, the ASA has amended its advertising codes to mirror the EU approach to advertisers’ health claims.

Claims which are caught are those which state, suggest or imply that a relationship exists between food and health. The new rules cover both general health claims (i.e. those which reference general benefits of a nutrient or food for overall good health or health-related well-being) and specific health claims (i.e. those which specifically link a food type to a specific health benefit). The new rules link to a list of authorised health claims set out in the EU Register and only those authorised claims (or claims that would have the same meaning to a consumer) may be used in marketing communications.

The rules state that if a general health claim is made about a product, the advertiser must be able to point to a specific authorised health claim set out in the EU Register which supports the general claim. For example, if an advertiser declared that a particular food was “good for you” then there must be a precise reason (taken from the EU Register) why this is the case, such as, the food contains calcium needed for the maintenance of normal bones or, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” would need to be backed up with the specific authorised health claim “because it contains vitamin A which contributes to the normal function of the immune system”. Advertisers should be aware that the ASA has said that it will take a wide approach when deciding when a general claim is being made.

The ASA will also look to see if the requisite levels of ingredients are contained in products to justify advertisers’ statements. For example, if a claim is made that a food or drink product contributes to maintain the normal function of the immune system during and after intense exercise because it contains vitamin C, then there must be a sufficient amount of vitamin C in the product to validate the claim. Details of what amounts are accepted as sufficient are contained in the Register. The advertiser must have supporting documentary evidence to prove compliance.

It is worth remembering that in addition to the new rules on health claims, strict rules apply to advertising food and soft drinks to children, particularly where
those products are high in fat, salt or sugar. The advertising codes place significant restrictions on the content of advertisements for food and soft drinks which are aimed at children. In particular, the adverts must not:

  • condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children
  • encourage excessive consumption of food or drink products
  • use promotional offers in an irresponsible way
  • use ‘high pressure’ or ‘hard sell’ techniques
  • use licensed characters or celebrities popular with children if ads are targeted directly at pre-school or primary school children
  • give a misleading impression of the nutritional benefit of products

As well as rules governing the content of the advertisements, there are also rules on where and when ads can appear. For example, adverts for food and drinks which are high in fat, salt or sugar are not permitted on TV around programmes that are commissioned for or are likely to be of particular appeal to children up to 16 years of age.

Food and drink advertisers should take care to comply with the updated advertising codes and not to exaggerate any health claims as the ASA, and other regulatory bodies such as the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), will be keeping a close eye on the way products are marketed in the food and drink sector.

Reviewed in 2015