Scientifically unproven to boost your health

An FSA campaign warning of high salt levels in cereal is just a prelude to a wider European attack on the claims of ‘probiotic’ foods

Cereal producers – Kellogg, Nestle and Weetabix among them – have been hammering at the door of the Food Standards Agency in a desperate attempt to halt an imminent multimedia advertising campaign warning the public of the high levels of salt to be found in most breakfast cereals.

It must be pretty galling to find the FSA acting like this. After all, according to their trade body, the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers, producers have been highly responsible in this area. Since 1998 they have lowered salt levels by an average of 44% and cereals now contribute less than 5% of our daily intake of salt.

I, too, think the FSA’s activity is misguided. It should be focusing its attention on the sugar content in breakfast cereals, a matter on which our leading brands have, alas, been less vigilant.

Let’s take a few examples. Weetabix’s Weetos: 23.5% sugar; Kellogg’s Bran Flakes: 22% sugar; Kellogg’s Optivita Raisin Oat Crisp, 27% sugar; Nestle’s Cheerios Honey, 35% sugar; Alpen: 23% sugar; Sugar Puffs: 35% sugar. And, lest we go away with the idea that brand owners are alone in a big, bad conspiracy: Morrisons’ Choco Crackles, 38% sugar; Sainsbury’s Choco Rice Pops, 36% sugar; and so on. Among these sinners, the original Weetabix emerges as virtually the only saint, with less than 5% sugar.

Despite appearances, the FSA has not been entirely asleep on the sugar issue. It believes that food with more than 15% sugar should be labelled as “high” in content. But this is a minority view in Europe. The trigger threshold that is likely to be enshrined in forthcoming EU-wide legislation will be between 20% and 25%.

As it happens, the issue of sugar content will soon become the least of the cereal producers’ problems, and the FSA well knows it. For a number of years, cereal brands have successfully dealt with the issue of toxic sugar and salt levels by side-stepping them. They have virtually reinvented their brands as health foods which contain scientifically endorsed ingredients that can, for instance, lower cholesterol (Optivita, with a Heart UK endorsement to boot), or promote growth, improve skin tone and boost the nervous and digestive systems (Sugar Puffs).

This trend – the so-called functional food revolution – has become the beleaguered processed food industry’s equivalent of the alchemist’s stone. Increasingly low-margin foodstuffs have by the magic of “scientifically-proven” elements, been turned into the gold of premium products.
Functional food has had implications for the food industry far beyond the cynical fringes of breakfast cereals. It has led to the invention, in just a few years, of new and highly profitable categories, based around the promise of making our lives longer and healthier.

A case in point is probiotic drinks and yoghurts, which were practically unheard of until the mid-Nineties. I say “practically” because Yakult, the grand-daddy of them all, was invented by Dr Minoru Shirota in 1930s Japan. He can have known nothing of the cod Greek term “probiotics” – meaning, roughly, “life enhancing” – nor little dreamed of how his fledgling brand would one day become central to a billion-pound industry dominated by global food giant Danone.

Danone – which now part-owns Yakult and has developed a number of its own brands such as Actimel and Activia – has not been having a bad recession if its probiotics activity is anything to go by. While others have cut deep into their marketing budgets, Danone has scarcely wavered in its support. Indeed, its biggest UK probiotics brand, Activia – whose ubiquitous TV commercial stars Nell McAndrew – saw spending rise in the last year to more than £12m. And that investment is clearly paying off, with sales rising 38% in the year to the end of February, according to Nielsen. We can surmise similar success from the £8.5m spent (and that’s before the celebrity fee) on Sir Bobby Charlton kicking a ball about for Actimel; and the near £5m behind Yakult. Also let’s not forget the amount spent by rival Unilever backing Gloria Hunniford, armed only with Flora Pro-activ Light, in her one-woman anti-cholesterol crusade; or Carol Vorderman’s relentless proselytising of the health benefits of P&G-owned Benecol.

Out of 70 of the food industry’s health claims investigated so far, EU scientists have rejected 66

All this impressive growth may, however, grind to a halt if legislators in Brussels take exception to the premise upon which it is built. Particularly worrying for the food industry is an ongoing review by the European Food Safety Authority. Empowered by new EU regulations, Efsa scientists have been trawling through thousands of the health claims made on behalf of European food brands, and by and large they do not like what they see. Out of 70 health claims so far investigated, they have rejected 66. Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice does not, identifiably, protect against urinary tract infections, nor does Lipton Tea help increase alertness.

We have yet to hear what they think of probiotics and the claims underpinning them. But the prognosis does not look good. Danone has had to withdraw three critical health claims which underpin its marketing platform for Actimel (helps strengthen the body’s natural defences) and for Activia (improves digestive comfort and improves slow transit).

Danone claims that this is only a technical, redrafting matter and says that Efsa will soon approve its claims. I hope it’s right. In the US (a different regulatory framework, of course) things have not gone well. Earlier this year Dannon, as the US arm is known, was forced into an out-of-court settlement in one of several class actions brought over its probiotic health claims. One of the demands was for a “corrective advertising” campaign.

The FSA may well take a reasonably indulgent attitude towards the sugar content in breakfast cereal in the short term, safe in the knowledge that – within a decade – the European food industry will have been forced into a fundamental change of tune.

Hmm, Danone…



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