By Joselyn B. Mwine
Einstein was wrong. Energy does not equal mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. Rather, energy equals caffeine plus lots of sugar and unproved nutritional additives. At least this is what the makers of so-called “energy and health drinks” would have consumers believe. These trendy “health” products occupy an increasingly growing sector of the beverage market in Uganda. The consumer market is inundated with new products that promise to do much more than to quench thirst: there are elixirs marketed as health drinks, sports drinks, functional foods, and smart drinks. Take a stroll down the herbal drinks aisle, and you might swear you have stumbled upon the secret to eternal life. Nowadays, there’s an herbal drink for everything. Stress relief, Cancer, diabetes, respiratory health, sleep, weight loss, increased energy, digestion, healthy skin, cold prevention, improved memory, healthier joints, easier menstruation, and healthy pregnancy.
Ugandans are increasingly seeking alternative ways to improve their health and fitness to avoid expensive doctor’s visits. But not all of these products live up to the advertising claims that they can help people lose weight, combat disease, and improve their cognitive abilities. Meanwhile, in recent years there has been a trend in food advertising toward making unproven claims that drinking certain herbal concoctions can improve health and even reduce the risk of serious illnesses such as prostate cancer and heart disease. Misleading ads for weight loss products target consumers desperate for results. But let’s face it: When it comes to dieting, there are no easy answers. If a product promises weight loss without effort and sacrifice, it’s bogus.
That does not stop some marketers from trying to make a quick buck at consumers’ expense. What’s more, they often use the reputation of respected media outlets as cover. “It has to be true,” consumers conclude. “The ad ran on my favourite channel” – or on the radio, in a national newspaper, or on a trusted website.
A closer look into this growing drink illustrates some of the most important issues currently facing the Uganda National Bureau of Standards. When a manufacturer walks into UNBS to get certification for an “herbal drink” and claims that the drink cures hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and other ailments, they are advised to ascertain these claims with National Drug Authority. Why? Because treatments like chemotherapy for cancer and insulin to manage diabetes have undergone extensive research, trials, and approvals on humans before they are approved by drug authorities across the world. Bear in mind that regulations do not exist to impede innovation but rather to protect the health and safety of consumers as well as ensure fair competition in the market. Without this evidence, manufacturers opt to be certified as non-carbonated soft drinks. The challenge then comes when these products are being advertised as certified by UNBS to cure ailments.
Now for you to tell a patient diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes to stop insulin therapy and opt for an herbal drink whose benefits were looked up on Google is putting someone’s life at risk.
Health claims in food labelling are claims that must be reviewed by UNBS and NDA before they are allowed on food products to show that a food or food component may reduce the risk of a disease or a health-related condition. Such claims must be supported by scientific evidence and may be used on conventional foods and on dietary supplements to characterize a relationship between a substance (a specific food component or a specific food) and a disease or health-related condition (e.g., high blood pressure).
It simply isn’t good enough to google information about a product and then slap the nutritional/health benefits found all over labels, webpages, and across your marketing channels. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the nutrition information for your product is accurate in the first place so that you can check if any claims you want to make can be substantiated.
But that’s not all! One of the fundamentals of food labelling is that it must not be misleading so, the wording you can use must have the same meaning to the consumer as the claims listed. For example, saying a product “contains no fat” would be subject to the conditions for fat-free. The same also goes for pictorial or symbolic representations. Medicinal claims that imply the food can prevent, treat or cure a human disease are a no-go area – they are not permitted to be used on food.
And, if you want to make a comparative claim – this must be with foods of the same category so, for example, you should not compare the calcium content of yogurt with that of an orange! The key requirement is that the comparison helps consumers make informed choices. The comparison you choose should also be representative of the market, so making a reduced sugar claim on lemonade in comparison with the full-sugar version in the range is permitted if the full-sugar variant has similar sugar levels to other full sugar lemonades also available from competitors or brands.
There are additional statements required on the label or advertising of products that make health claims:
The importance of a varied & balanced diet and healthy lifestyle
How much and when should one take this to obtain the benefit?
A statement to who should avoid using the food (if appropriate) e.g. pregnant women, children, etc.
A warning is likely to present a health risk if consumed to excess
But spotting false claims before they are published or aired – and before consumers risk their money and perhaps even their health on a worthless product – is something media houses can do. Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to spot every deceptive weight loss or cure claim, but media houses must be vigilant. How does that work in the day-to-day operation of your business? Before you run an ad, someone in your company must give it the once-over to make sure that you are not getting ready to risk your reputation by running a claim known to be false. Train your sales staff to speak to a supervisor or better still to UNBS if an ad makes a health claim. No legitimate media outlet wants to be associated with the fraud. Accuracy is your company’s stock in trade. Why sully your good name by being known as a publication or station that promotes rip-offs? You want to protect loyal readers, listeners, and viewers from bogus products that cannot possibly work as advertised or have no substantial evidence for that matter. For the most part, the examples we are talking about apply to dietary supplements, including herbal remedies, over-the-counter drugs, as well as creams rubbed into the skin.
However, lack of evidence does not mean there is no potential for evidence. While a lot of herbal drinks have yet to be studied in well-designed research trials, many have shown promise in animal studies. There is also the fact that many of their natural ingredients are thought to have had healing powers in certain civilizations for centuries. When the research is not there, anecdotal evidence should not be written off entirely. This could be an opportunity for laboratories across the country to explore research in this budding industry which could open doors for ground-breaking discovery into a potential billion-dollar industry.
The writer is the Public Relations Officer at the Uganda National Bureau of Standards.