Health claims report slammed as ‘unscientific’

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Health claims report slammed as ‘unscientific’

Related tags Health claims Scientific method Canada

A new report that calls for fewer restrictions on the use of health claims in Canada has been criticized as being “superficial” and not grasping the intricacies of the Canadian and US food legislative frameworks.

Published by the Fraser Institute and available here​, the report reviewed scientific research backing the health benefits of foods and food components, and compared these to the allowable health claims in both Canada and the United States.

“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.

Health claims revisions

The report states that Health Canada currently permits only five advertising claims concerning reduced risks of disease. The US Food and Drug Administration allows 27 permissible health claims, it said. However, Fraser was unable to confirm with prior to publication this morning what criteria it used to identify the health claims and which groups of health claims it was including in its list.

Fraser, which specializes in measuring the impact of government interventions on markets, believes that its report findings indicate a need for health claim revisions in Canada.

The study suggests that “Canada should harmonize its regulations with those in the US, 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.”

Not so fast

However, the Consumers’ Association of Canada disagrees that Canadian regulations need to be harmonized with US regulations.

“I guess they have their process and we have ours – and that’s fine. There is certainly no effect in Canada to restrict putting worthwhile claims on labels,”​ said president of the group Bruce Cran.

“From a consumer point of view we prefer to err on the edge of caution rather than playing catch-up to the Americans. This report seemed very superficial to me. Fortunately for us, Health Canada runs the system in Canada and not the Fraser Institute,”​ he told

Scientific review…

The report, entitled The Regulation of Health Claims in Advertising​, examined 416 academic articles analyzing the health benefits of food elements in order to “test whether the health claims currently permitted in the United States and Canada are well supported by scientific research”.

The studies were chosen by conducting keyword searches for ‘diet’ and ‘health’ in PubMed and Medline databases, as well as on the Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) websites. The articles were selected for inclusion in the review if they met three main sets of criteria, explains the report. These were: Publication in peer reviewed journals; testing on human subjects; and specific study of the link between diet and health.

The reports author, Mark Brosens, who holds degrees in political studies and political communications, then compared the conclusions of the sample articles to the permissible health claims in Canada and the US.

He found that 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 US.

“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.

…Not so scientific?

However, David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the US consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), criticized the report as being “an unscientific review of the research on diet and health”.

He said there was insufficient explanation as to how the 416 articles were chosen from among the thousands on diet and health in people published in peer-reviewed journals.

“Unless the author intends to review all the articles on a particular subject, he must have an unbiased way of choosing which he does include in his review. I can easily handpick 416 articles for a review, all 416 of which show absolutely no relationship between diet and health, but I wouldn't claim that this is representative of the research or the basis for changing regulations,”​ he told
He also said that in order to conclude whether a food component has a health benefit, it is necessary to look at the totality of the evidence.

“Research is seldom unanimous on a subject. It's easy to find one study claiming a benefit, but that may not be representative of the research. It's not a matter of one study claiming a benefit, it's whether or not the research in its totality consistently points in the same direction.”

Finally, he stressed the importance of considering dosage and biological significance in any scientific review. “A study can use unrealistically large amounts of a substance to produce a benefit, or it can produce a statistically significant outcome that's so small that it may not matter much.”

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