Food manufacturers and scientists pushing gene-tailored diets are "hoodwinking" consumers and government, according to a new report from the independent Food Ethics Council.
The council, which aims to make the food system fair, said the public was being misled by major food companies who developed foods targeted at specific genetic groups, and claimed they were using health-based marketing merely as a way of differentiating their products.
'Getting personal: shifting responsibilities for dietary health' questions claims by companies and scientists that genetic targeting would bring substantial benefits for public health. It argues that this was unlikely because genetic differences were rarely as important as other factors influencing why some people developed health problems and others did not.
The report comes amid a general shift towards 'personalisation' of foods, with moves to place more emphasis on individual responsibility. It questions the benefits of nutrigenomics, or personalised nutrition, saying: "In public health terms it is the icing on a cake that is not yet baked. It is the product of strategies that put commercial wealth before public health."
Dr Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, said: "The public health returns from research in nutrigenomics are being talked up to garner public support and funding in the current climate of concern about obesity. Talking up public health may be tempting in the short-term, but we can expect a serious backlash if companies and scientists promise benefits they cannot deliver.
"We are not saying companies can't do anything to improve public health, we are just saying the way to do this isn't through personalisation.
"The likes of Unilever and Danone have their own visions of personalisation based on the targeted marketing of health related products. This is presented by some as a public health solution. It is no such thing, because it focuses on differentiating products, not on raising baseline standards of nutrition."
However, Unilever, which makes the Flora pro.activ cholesterol lowering spread, refuted the claim. A spokesman said: "A range of studies has shown that foods enriched with plant sterols, such as pro.activ, lower LDL cholesterol by around 10%. Reducing cholesterol is generally accepted to be an important factor in reducing the risk of heart disease.
"Foods enriched with plant sterols, like pro.activ, now feature in the international and national dietary guidelines of a number of countries."