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Use of forbidden claims on food supplements

The use of food supplements in Italy is increasingly widespread, but at the same time the presence on the market and the promotion of products claiming incredible and miraculous properties has considerably increased. Such properties include losing weight in very little time, limitless boost of the immune system, or even curing particular diseases, just to mention some examples.

The hazards of misleading advertising

Such misleading advertising via internet, social media or other channels, increases the risk of deceiving consumers that will be driven to buy these products autonomously and unknowingly, as they do not have any technical training, nor they are aware of the regulations in force.

In parallel, there is little awareness of the fact that a product cannot be considered safe only because it is “natural” and that, on the contrary, under given individual conditions, taking these products could results in different effects from the expected ones, including undesirable events.

Moreover, it should be considered that food supplements are often taken concomitantly with pharmacological treatments already in place, with an additional risk of pharmacologic interactions.

Health protection

It should be reminded that, since food supplements are free sale products, it is essential to protect consumers’ safety and health by only disseminating appropriate fair and authorised information.

From a regulatory point of view, to protect consumers as well as the companies operating in the food sector, more specific indications are provided to ensure the marketing of food supplements complying with the regulations in force.

The labelling of food supplements

In this context, the label of food supplements is a precious tool allowing the consumer to access a whole set of essential and mandatory information such as the qualitative and quantitative composition, the method of use, and any additional warning for its employment.

However, the element mostly driving people in buying a supplement is the effect claimed in the label, i.e. the so called “claims”.

To better clarify what is meant by “claim” we should read Regulation (EC) no. 1924/2006 regarding the nutrition and health claims made on food products: this defines a claim as “any message or representation, which is not mandatory under Community or national legislation, including pictorial, graphic or symbolic representation, in any form, which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular characteristics”.

What are health claims

The same regulation differentiates nutrition claims from health claims: the former state or suggest that a food has beneficial nutrition properties such as “low-fat”, “with no added sugar”, or “high fibre”.

Differently, any statement on the label, or used for advertising or trade purposes, according to which the consumption of certain food can be beneficial for health, is a health claim, for instance stating that a certain substance can contribute to the normal function of the immune system.

Health claims authorised by the European Commission, after the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has released their opinion, and therefore the sole claims that are compliant to be used on food supplements labels, are listed in Regulation (EC) no. 432/2012.

Health claims are in fact authorised only after a careful examination of scientific evidence and studies supporting their use for the concerned substance. Claims have therefore the goal of preserving people’s health and of guiding them to more informed decisions through clear and appropriate information.

In the light of these considerations, it should be reminded that food supplements are food products intended to supplement the normal diet, designed to contribute to the maintenance of wellness of individuals and not to prevent, or treat any disease. It is therefore not possible to attribute to these products any special beneficial or curing property.

It is essential that the labelling of these products reports complying information and a fair message to consumers, that should be protected from any possible adverse effects and supported in using food supplements with safety and awareness.

The sanctions for misleading advertising

For appropriate advertising of a food supplement, one should comply with specific national rules aiming at protecting consumers from misleading information.

Anyone misleadingly advertising a food supplement, using non-authorised claims in the label that can induce consumers to believe that a food supplement can actually have the ability of curing or preventing diseases, will have to face money sanctions as provided for by the law in force.

In particular, the attribution of special therapeutic, prevention or curing properties of human diseases is punished with the application of an administrative fine of 2,000 to 10,000 euros (art. 15 of Leg. Dec. no. 169/2004, i.e. the implementation of directive 2002/46/EC on food supplements).

In this context, legislative decrees no. 145/2007 and no. 146/2007, adopting community directives 2005/29/EC and 2006/114/EC, have introduced a new disciplinary to protect the safety of consumers from unfair trade practice in the relation between enterprises and consumers (Leg. Dec. 146/2007) and from misleading advertising in the relation between competitors (Leg. Dec. 145/2007).

According to Legislative decree no. 146/2007, with the provision forbidding unfair business practice, and to Legislative decree no. 145/2007, with the provision forbidding advertising dissemination, the Italian antitrust Authority has provided for the implementation of an administrative money sanction from 5,000 to 500,000 euros, taking into account the severity and the duration of the violation.

Based on the above, it is therefore clear how essential it is for professionals and enterprises to be able to trust regulatory experts for a careful and appropriate evaluation of the information reported in food supplement labels in order to avoid costly fines as provided for by the regulations in force.

Written by Chiara Cauteruccio on 25/05/2023

Foto di Cheska Poon da Pixabay