Food trends – and businesses that market them – often make health claims about particular food products, but can consumers trust these claims? Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has rules that cover a wide range of health claims made on food labels and in advertising. As of January 2016, all health claims must be supported by scientific evidence.
The food product must also meet the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criteria – so foods high in substance like sugar or saturated fats are not allowed to make any health claims at all.
Health claim categories
FSANZ Standard 1.2.7 lists two types of health claims that food businesses can make. The first is a general level health claim, which may not refer to a serious disease. This refers to a nutrient or substance in food, or the food itself, and its effect on health. An acceptable example, according to FSANZ, is ‘calcium for healthy bones and teeth’. FSANZ has more than 200 pre-approved food-health relationships that businesses can use to base their claims, along with conditions that must be met if using the claim. Businesses can also self-substantiate a claim, provided it is supported by scientific evidence.
The second category is a high-level health claim. This refers to a nutrient or substance in a food and its relationship to a serious disease. For example, a food that makes the claim ‘increased intake of fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of coronary heart disease’ must contain no less than 90% fruit or vegetable by weight, and claims are not permitted on fruit or vegetable juices. High-level claims can only be made with the 13 pre-approved food-health relationships listed in the standard.
Nature of science
FSANZ Standard 1.2.7 requires that food health claims be backed up by scientific evidence. The need to provide evidence forms part of the ‘Understanding about science’ strand of the NZC.
Nutrition content claims
Nutrition content claims are statements about the content of particular nutrients or substances in a food. Nutrition claims need to meet criteria set out in the standard. For example, if a food claims to be high in protein, it must contain at least 10 g of protein per serving.
Enforcing food claims
FSANZ is not responsible for enforcing health claims. Complaints about health claims and nutrition content are dealt with by the Ministry for Primary Industries. The New Zealand Food Act 2014 and Fair Trading Act 1986 also require that labels do not misinform consumers through false or misleading representations.
What makes superfood super?
Food trends promote the consumption of superfoods – but what is a superfood? For a start, superfoods are said to be nutritionally dense, and most of them are plant based. However, superfood is a marketing term rather than a term used by nutrition experts. Dietitians agree it is important to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and nutrient-dense foods as part of a balanced diet, but they also point out that superfoods cannot undo damage caused by unhealthy eating nor will eating a single food containing a certain antioxidant kill diseased cells.
Some superfood claims
Below are some claims made about particular foods. Use websites such as the UK National Health Service, American Heart Association or NZ Nutrition Foundation to view evidence about superfood claims. Do the claims below match the evidence-based research?
Rutin: Known as a glycoside, it is found in onions, buckwheat, asparagus, citrus fruits and rinds and berries such as mulberries and cranberries.
What it does: Helps halt obesity.
Cacao beans: Used in chocolate, contains three neurotransmitters.
What it does: Linked with promoting a healthy mood and positive mental state.
Red wine: Skin of red grapes and red wine contains resveratrol.
What it does: Resveratrol can slow the progress of many diseases such as cancer, diabetes, inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Green tea: Contains antioxidants.
What it does: Reduces cardiovascular diseases, cholesterol levels and the risk of obesity, fatty liver disease and insulin resistance
Purple carrots: Ancient version of the contemporary orange carrot.
What it does: High in anti-inflammatory properties, can help sufferers of arthritis and back pain, reduces the risk of cancer.
Olive leaf extract: Antioxidant capacity almost double green tea extract.
What it does: Anti-inflammatorily properties, effective for weight loss, reducing blood pressure and preventing diabetes.
Chia seeds: Native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala.
What it does: Helps lower the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Blueberries: Contain resveratrol.
What it does: Slows the progress of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, inflammation and heart disease.
Broccoli: Contains vitamin C, folic acid and carotenoids.
What it does: Enhances immune system, may prevent some cancers.
Citrus fruits: Contains rutin (in the rind), high in vitamin C.
What it does: Enhances iron absorption and reduces the risk of heart attack.
Five fundamental types of materials required to keep our bodies functioning
The article Food function and structure introduces the fundamental types of materials required to keep our bodies functioning. It has links to key terms and articles on substances and compounds like phytochemicals, fibre and micronutrients.
The Australian and New Zealand governments are conducting a review of the Health Star Rating system for food. This article looks at the systems drawbacks and ways to move forward.
In Chocolate hearts read about how researchers have found that high levels of chocolate consumption seem to reduce the risk of developing heart disease. However, they say chocolate should be eaten in moderation because of its saturated fat and sugar content.
New Zealand blackcurrents – rich in anthocyanins – are being hailed as the next superfood. On the New Zealand Blackcurrants website there is a link to a PDF of the article Purple reign: Does the humble Kiwi blackcurrant deserve 'superfood' status? – this explains how scientists at Plant & Food Research produced evidence for a self-substantiated health claim.
Consumer New Zealand uses the Bad Taste Food Awards to call out manufacturers who promote their products as being healthier than they are.
In 2004, two New Zealand school girls made world headlines when they proved GlaxoSmithKline misled consumers about vitamin C claims.
The Ministry for Primary Industries has an online section for industry and food safety.
Visit the Food Standards Australia New Zealand website for information about food standards, consumer information and science.
In 2022 the Health Star Rating system was upgraded, making it tougher on sugar and salt – read the press announcement on the MPI website. The Health Star Rating system is currently voluntary – and there is no government charge to use it – but if uptake by manufacturers does not meet a 70% target by 2025, the government will consider making the system mandatory.