Canada Should Follow U.S. Lead and Allow Advertisers to Promote More Health Benefits of Food Products

Canada’s rigid advertising standards leave the public in the dark about health benefits potentially associated with certain food products, according to a new, peer-reviewed study from independent research organization the Fraser Institute.

“The research reviewed in this report suggests there’s a link between consuming particular foods and lowering your risk of developing certain diseases, but in Canada you won’t find the potential health benefits of many food elements printed on product labels,” said Brett Skinner, Fraser Institute director of bio-pharma and health policy.

“Americans, on the other hand, receive much more information about the relationship between diet and health through their everyday contact with products and advertisements.”

In the report, The Regulation of Health Claims in Advertising, author Mark Brosens finds that the United States allows a wider array of health claims to appear in advertisements for nutraceuticals (products isolated or purified from foods and demonstrated to have health benefits or to provide protection against chronic disease), functional foods (conventional foods that have health benefits beyond basic nutritional functions), and natural health products (homeopathic preparations and products used in traditional medicines to restore bodily functions or promote health).

The report points out that Health Canada currently permits only five advertising claims concerning reduced risks of disease. Conversely, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows 27 permissible health claims.

Canada’s regulation is based on the rationale that, in order to ensure the accuracy and safety of claims about the effects of consuming food products, the government should regulate what food producers are able to say in their advertisements.

To test whether the health claims currently permitted in the United States and Canada are well supported by scientific research, the study’s author reviewed 416 academic articles analyzing the health benefits of food elements. The keywords “diet” and “health” were used to search for scholarly studies focused on the link between diet and health outcomes.

From the sample of articles, 78 per cent of the conclusions identified were in agreement with the five permissible Canadian health claims, while 22 per cent disagreed with Canada’s approved claims. In comparison, 64 per cent of the sample’s entries were in agreement with the 27 American health claims, while 36 per cent disagreed with those approved in the U.S.

“Brosens’s research suggests that the health claims permitted in both countries are scientifically sound. But at the same time, the results show that Canada’s advertising guidelines are more restrictive,” Skinner said.

The study suggests that Canada should harmonize its regulations with those in the U.S., where a system of standard definitions sets out what kind of language an advertiser can use to make health claims, based on the volume of scientific evidence supporting the medical benefits of a food product.

In this way, phrases like “although there is scientific evidence supporting the claim, the evidence is not conclusive…” and “very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests…” may be used to help individuals make informed health care decisions while still acknowledging that the alleged benefits are not a certainty.

The study concludes that introducing a wider array of permissible health claims in Canada would give advertisers greater opportunity to bring the relationship between diet and health to the public’s attention.

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