UK advertising watchdog issues diet marketing guidelines; nutritionist calls for diet health claims

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Related tags: Advertising, Marketing, Nutrition, diet

Weight-loss testimonials "are not adequate substantiation" to prove diets work and specific food references require authorised health claims, the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has said in a guidance statement.

Diets that promise adherents can lose a specific amount of weight in a specific timeframe, especially those that promote rapid weight-loss or glorify being underweight, are also prohibited.

“In addition to objective claims, marketers must also prepare their ads with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society,”​ the ASA wrote.

“This means that ads must not promote an unhealthy body image, exploit insecurities, or create pressure to conform to a particular body type (including idealised gender stereotypical appearances).”

The watchdog further determined diet ads should not target under-18s.

It noted it had in the past ruled against ads that used “models who appear to be unhealthily thin” ​while simultaneously acknowledging that, “featuring thin models in ads is not considered inherently socially irresponsible”.

Time for a calorie-reduced health claim?

Dr Carrie Ruxton, Founder and MD of Nutrition Communications, agreed with the guidance’s basic tenets, but offered some sympathy for the diet sector’s marketing efforts in the absence of an authorised calorie-reduced health claim.

We need to have a health claim for calorie-reduced diet plans because at present there isn’t an off the shelf claim that businesses can use,”​ Dr Ruxton told NutraIngredients.

“It’s all very well saying businesses must make authorised health claims but there are only a couple for weight-loss and we are facing an obesity epidemic now! We can’t afford to wait another decade for more claims so let’s get some generic ones on the books for evidence-based diets.”

Greater clarity around what dietitians and nutritionists can say in commercial weight-loss communications was needed.

“Article 12c of the EU nutrition and health claims regulation is too restrictive and this has been compounded by EU Member State guidelines,”​ Dr Ruxton said, noting, “Many companies now have in-house dietitians or work with freelancers.”

“It is better for consumers if qualified professionals explain health claims, not celebrities and influencers. Hence either Article 12c should be repealed or the guidance should be proportionate to enable consumers to receive the best quality advice in ads and other commercial communications.”

While the UK is no longer bound by EU law post-Brexit, bodies like the ASA continue to reference EU food law including health claims.

Testing testimonials

The ASA accepted testimonials could form part of diet marketing materials if they were signed, dated and did not embellish product efficacy, but emphasised ‘before and after’ photos were never enough on their own to substantiate a diet programme.

“Marketers should be able to back up their claims with rigorous practical trials conducted on people and be able to prove that these results were achieved through a loss of body fat, rather than water or muscle mass,”​ it said.

A recent ruling​ against Wirral-based Liquid Lipo International Ltd illustrated this stance, where the firm failed to provide clinical data and references to back weight loss claims for a ‘fat dissolve gel’.

The firm called out a peer-reviewed, double-blind study that “assisted fat loss in more than 95% of participants”, ​but provided no link to the study, nor any other relevant data.

The ASA said claims like, “binds to fat cells, shrinking them and dissolving the fat”,​ “Proven to work in 3,000 clinical trials 95% of people lost fat”, ​and “The fat is broken down into Carbon Dioxide and water, it [sic] excreted from the body”​ were misleading.

The ASA guidance reminded firms that, “it’s important to keep an eye on the facts and figures to ensure your marketing is compliant". 

It said firms could contact its Copy Advice team​ for free marketing advice.

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