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Claims and advertising of food supplements

There is a sector in Italy that has not been touched by the crisis for some years: it is the food supplement sector. In the never-ending search for well-being by a growing number of consumers, food supplements are perceived as products that can support physical wellness, and their use is generally considered safe, also because they are usually based on natural substances.

The attribution of a natural origin is frequently falsely understood by consumers as a guarantee of safety; actually, ‘natural’ is not always matched with ‘safe’. In any case, the large consumption of supplements shows that consumers use products claiming the most varied nutrition and healthy effects in their labels or advertising.

Does all this have a scientific foundation?

All over the European Union, Regulation 1924/2006 is in force establishing rules for the use of nutrition and health indications (Claims) that can be proposed on labels and advertisements of food, including food supplements. The scope of the Regulation is to protect consumers’ health and make them more aware of their choices through appropriate information.

Labels and advertising of food supplements can only use those claims previously assessed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and that, following a positive outcome of this evaluation, were then authorised by the European Commission. In general, a claim can be used only if based on scientific data and if does not attribute to the food properties preventing, curing, or healing from diseases.

Companies can propose a new claim for a certain substance or ingredient submitting a dossier to the European Commission, accompanied by scientific literature data to support the validity of the claim. The European Commission, through the opinion of EFSA experts, can authorise the claim if validated by appropriate and robust scientific evidence. Sometimes, special conditions or restrictions can be provided for on the use of the claim.

A different issue is the one regarding herbal substances and preparations. In fact, as there is no harmonisation at European level, while waiting for a centralised regulation also for these ingredients, each Member State can manage autonomously the list of plants and botanical extracts that can be used in the food supplements.

In Italy, the use of herbal extracts and preparations (the so called botanicals) in food supplements is currently regulated by the Ministry Decree 10 August 2018, then amended by following decrees. This list of botanicals authorised in Italy is supported by the Ministry guidelines on physiological effects. These effects, used while waiting for the definition of the claims for botanicals, are aimed at optimising the body functions in the homeostasis model. They are therefore activities falling into the definition of food supplement. Food supplements are in fact intended to integrate the common diet and are a concentrated source of nutrition substances, such as minerals and vitamins or other substances with a nutrition or physiological effect, such as amino acids, essential fatty acids, fibres, and extract of herbal origin. Food supplements are not to be intended in anyway for the treatment or prevention of diseases, but they can contribute to the maintenance and support of the normal wellbeing of individuals, defined by homeostasis.

It is therefore evident that the use of claims or physiological effects on the labelling or advertising of food supplements can only avail itself of the indications authorised by the European or national regulations in force, and that their effects can be in no way associated to the product as a whole, but to the single ingredients of its composition.

Written by: Valentina Generoso