Glossier hair. More radiant skin. Reduced appearance of lines and wrinkles. Who monitors which nutrition products can make such aesthetic claims? What scientific backing is demanded to prove efficacy? And why don’t we count these beauty food claims alongside those on health?
First things first, beauty claims do not fall within the scope of Europe’s health claims regulation, which requires the demonstration of a beneficial physiological effect.
“Does a food - if it exists - that reduces wrinkles, or makes the skin glow make you healthier? EFSA [the European Food Safety Authority] said that, in most cases, the answer is no,” Luca Bucchini, managing director at Hylobates Consulting, told us.
Though application has not been entirely consistent, in 2011 EFSA recognised that maintenance of normal structure, hydration, elasticity or appearance of the skin and also a decrease in wrinkles, which may be related to the maintenance or improvement of skin structure/hydration/elasticity, were not necessarily health claims. Because beauty claims don't fall within its remit, EFSA does not have official guidelines on this.
Instead these so-called nutricosmetics come under cosmetic law and are evaluated on a case by case basis by member states and their advertising authorities.
Whilst companies must still register products with the relevant national agencies and have the science there to back up any claims, they will only be asked to present this supporting science if challenged.
This means the market is monitored once the product is already out there, rather than by a pre-market approval process as is the case for health claims which must pass through EFSA.
Yet Bucchini said this did not mean beauty claims were ‘unregulated’.
“If they are not backed up by strong data, authorities such as the UK’s ASA [Advertising Standards Authority], will find them misleading. This may be the case under unfair commercial practices law (including misleading advertising) and under food law (which bans misleading information on food).”
The ASA advised companies to contact it for copy advice if the company was unsure whether a claim which related to food and the consumer’s appearance would be considered a health claim. It said the interpretation of this would depend on the specific claims made and the overall context of the advert.
What comes next though could go either way.
Open to interpretation
In 2014 ASA said "work from within to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles” was not a health claim.
Meanwhile in Italy, the Ministry of Health recognises 14 skin well-being claims on botanicals and skin well-being claims linked to probiotics have been reviewed in the past.
Asked what the nature of this evidence might be in the event of a challenge, Bucchini conceded end results of these kinds of tests could be subjective and therefore differ from country to country and product to product.
He said EU member states did not formally coordinate on beauty effects of food to his knowledge.
Yet he added: “Claims on cosmetics have been very poorly regulated, but the science is there.”
For the ASA the evidence required might include one or more of the following: Experimental human studies, within-subject comparisons of treated and untreated sites, studies without human subjects, before and after studies with little or no control, self-assessment studies, published and unpublished literature and anecdotal evidence.
What’s the difference?
Bucchini said it was arguable that this regulatory stance was tantamount to saying misleading beauty claims were less serious than misleading health claims and could therefore be dealt with by simply monitoring the market.
From theory to practice: Last July, the ASA ordered Pure Gold Collagen to change its marketing because its implied beauty and appearance claims were not substantiated.
“I guess it's the same as the requirement to have a license before driving a car and the lack of such a requirement for smaller motorbikes or bikes - if you break the law you will still be fined, but there is no need for a licence.”
Yet the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) took a different view of the issue, saying any claims – even if promising beautiful hair – should not appear on food supplements if they are not backed by solid science.
“This is all the more important knowing that the consumers who tend to buy these products are often in a desperate need of improving their health,” said Pauline Constant, communications officer for BEUC.
“Some beauty claims can sometimes sound like health claims. The claim ‘glowing skin’ for instance can be associated with improved health. As such, beauty and health claims should be distinguished on a case-by-case basis, requiring from national advertising or control authorities more time and resources to determine whether consumers are being misled.”
She said beauty claims were particularly difficult to police given these products often contained botanicals, another area shrouded in regulatory uncertainty. BEUC maintains its position that botanicals should be judged by the same strict standards as food health claims, as opposed to being given “special treatment”.