The news emerged after the European Commission (EC) published an approved list of just 222 permitted 13.1 general health claims, mostly for vitamins and minerals, from 4,640 submitted under the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation EC 1924/2006, covering everything from energy and digestive health to weight loss.
At a conference on health claims organised by the Food and Drink Innovation Network last month, a number of experts suggested that nutritional labelling claims might offer marketers a "potential loophole". Consultant nutritionist Dr Janice Harland was one of them.
Harland said firms seeking to keep products such as probiotics on the shelves now that they had all been rejected for health claims approval by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) might be able to seek a nutrition claim where, for example, the probiotic bacterial strain was used as a generic descriptor.
As things currently stand, probiotic yogurts will have to be removed from shelves or relabelled to remove any suggested health claim some six months after the health claims list approved by the European Parliament comes into effect, probably in May 2012.
"By 2013 maybe, many products currently labelled as probiotics at the present time will have to bear a label in a different form to the present," said Harland. However, she noted that all claims allowed for foodstuffs would be subject to nutrient profiles that have yet to be determined.
Similar approaches would be required for other categories of foods, said Harland. "Weight loss [claims] will have to be nutrition related," she added.
Julian Mellentin, a marketer and director of New Nutrition Business, said "it's worth connecting with what consumers believe". This meant focusing, for example, on natural products such as fruit and vegetables, which require no health claims. He argued that, in many cases, it might be "a total waste of time to go after a health claim".
Others, such as Claire Nuttall, director of global brand agency 1HQ, argued that some established brands should make greater use of what consumers associated with health. She spoke about careful alterations to some brands and the use of implied claims as a way around the regulations. This might require "really clever marketing and holistic thinking", said Nuttall.