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  • HealthClaimsUnpacked

Could you rephrase that?

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Chris Ryder, University of Reading

The EU provides a list of 260 permitted health claims, but they can be quite a mouthful:

Calcium contributes to the maintenance of normal bones.

However, food manufacturers are allowed to change the wording so long as it has the same meaning. But the big question is – how can you tell when something means the same? Does the example below mean the same as the above?

Calcium helps to keep your bones healthy.

Perhaps it does, or perhaps it doesn't – it's certainly not always clear to manufacturers, and sometimes the only way to find out is to go for it and see if you get told off by the Advertising Standard Authority (ASA)!

In our focus groups, we asked volunteers what they thought about different wording that's used on food packages. There were two main things they liked: personalization (using you and your) and denominalization, which is just the way us linguists like to refer to using verbs instead of nouns. So, for example, instead of maintenance (noun), they would prefer maintains (verb). But even then, it's quite an official-sounding word – something like helps would be a lot friendlier.

What our volunteers definitely didn't like was the word normal – it sounds "a bit woolly", but beyond that it’s just not clear what is meant by normal. Who is normal? Do you even want to be merely normal?

Having said that, it's possible for the re-wording to go a bit too far. One manufacturer claims that their product "fires up your metabolism", but our volunteers thought that sounded "dodgy".

One way in which food manufacturers and consumers seem to agree is that they don't like claims relating to certain digestion-related health benefits. Do we really want "an acceleration of intestinal transit", or "an increase in faecal bulk"? Well, maybe some people do … but not when we're thinking about food, please!

Let us know if you’ve seen any particularly good or bad wording of health claims on food packaging by clicking on the Contact Us link above.

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