Government scientists and industry experts have joined hands to evolve guidelines for advertisements claiming health benefits for what is called health foods in India and functional foods in the US. The sharp rise in upper class incomes, lifestyle diseases and health consciousness has created a market for such foods, which industry has been quick to step into. Rules are urgently needed because currently there are none. For example, the claim by GlaxoSmithKlein that Horlicks makes children taller, stronger and sharper may have been clinically validated, but the firm would not be breaking any law or guideline if it were not. Current Indian guidelines, supervised by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, only require foods to be safe for consumption and unadulterated. The initial aim of the proposed regulations will be to mainly focus on probiotics, foods which contain bacteria that help in digestion, and nutracuticals which are nutritional aids with a leg in the domain of pharmaceutical chemistry and biotechnology. Apart from regulation, India also needs effective implementation of rules and adequate testing capacity.
There is much to be learnt from the different ways in which the US and Europe have gone about policing these claims. The US Federal Trade Commission, which polices claims for functional foods has to live with firms’ constitutional right to commercial free speech so long as it is truthful and not misleading. In practice, the US public is inundated with claims of health and wellness from this burgeoning industry and the regulator is always trying to catch up with clever marketing that says one thing in a prominent slogan upfront but the import of the detailed nutritional label at the back can mean something else. Not only do ordinary consumers seldom read and understand the fine print, they are often driven by an overwhelming desire to find the holy grail of wellness. The FTC has in the recent period filed complaints of deceptive marketing against such well known firms as Kellog, Dannon and a subsidiary of Nestle.
The Europeans Food Safety Authority, on the other hand, has set up an independent panel of experts to examine health and wellness claims. Firms have to submit their claims with scientific evidence for the panel to pass an opinion on whether they pass muster. India is moving towards a regime of pre-clearance of claims before they can be made but there is a danger in this. Going by the standards of Indian bureaucratic efficiency and ethics, it is quite possible for log jams to be created and corruption to surface. A middle path can be adopted whereby a firm can file a claim and go ahead if it is not rejected after a period. The regulator should also be able to disqualify a claim, on scientific evidence, even after it has begun to be aired. But one problem which will remain, in India and elsewhere, is the scientific validation of a claim. While peer reviewed research should always be insisted upon, the risk of sponsored research later turning out to be self-serving will always remain.