Health claims threat for Omega-3 suppliers

New rules could ban companies in Europe from making health claims for Omega-3 capsules, supplement suppliers' leaders fear.

The European Responsible Nutrition Alliance (ERNA) said the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) failure to recommend exempting supplements from nutrient profiling under the European Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation meant it could become illegal to make claims such as those relating to heart health for supplements containing essential fatty acids.

Under the regulation, which covers food, drink and food supplements, the European Commission wants to stop products high in at least one of fat, salt or sugar from carrying positive health claims. It will use nutrient profiling to decide which products fit this description — and last year asked EFSA to provide scientific advice on how to establish a suitable profiling model.

Issuing its opinion last month, EFSA suggested certain food categories could be excluded from nutrient profiling altogether — or alternatively be set different nutrient profiling parameters — to reflect their significance in the diet.

"A nutrient profiling scheme could be applied across all foods with a limited number of exemptions for specific food groups that play an important role in various diets," said EFSA. "These exemptions, if necessary, could take the form of specific profiles to ensure some products in these groups are eligible to bear claims."

Categories to be exempted could include fresh produce, meat, fish, vegetable oils, spreadable fats, dairy, cereals and non-alcoholic beverages. However, there was no mention of food supplements.

Although most types of supplement contain negligible amounts of fat, salt and sugar, those containing essential fatty acids are 100% fat. And this could become problematic if the European Commission decides to use a 100g/100ml reference portion size to determine profiles.

Although a typical Omega 3 supplement would be no more than 1.5g fat, measured on the basis of 100g it could find itself caught up in rules designed to protect consumers from products genuinely high in fat, said ERNA, which had already been lobbying EFSA and the Commission for an exemption for supplements, but which will now step up its efforts.

"Typically, food supplements are marketed in the form of capsules, tablets and pills, and represent a maximum weight of 2g," said Gert Krabichler, chair of ERNA. "Such forms do not contain significant quantities of energy, fat, sugar, and salt, and therefore do not add to the daily energy-intake of the consumer. The reasons for imposing nutrient profiles therefore are irrelevant for food supplements.

"If no account is taken of the specificities of food supplements when establishing nutrient profiles, the result could be that certain food supplements would no longer be allowed to make health claims, while regular foods that contribute substantially more of these nutrients in terms of daily intake would still be permitted to make claims."

It is now for the European Commission to decide the precise methodology it will use to apply nutrient profiling under the health claims regulation, something it is due to do by January 2009.

There is a precedent for using an across-the-board 100g portion size in nutrient profiling — in the UK, where profiling is used to restrict advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods during children's television programmes. The use of this reference amount has proved controversial because it means nutritious products normally eaten in far smaller portions than 100g — including breakfast cereals, cheese and raisins — are now banned from being advertised to kids on TV.

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