Dispatches from the #SNC16 congress in Frankfurt

Could energy drinks be cut out of the EU caffeine claim loop?

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The European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA) is lobbying for two different solutions to the EU caffeine claim hold up, one of which could see use of the claims limited to sports supplements only.  

Five years after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gave its thumbs to the science behind five caffeine health claims, controversy on their official approval for use rumbles on.

A report on safe upper limits from EFSA last year meant one of the claims referring to ‘perceived exertion during exercise’ was cast aside for good.  

Then this year members of the European Parliament (MEPs) blocked a draft proposal to finally write the other four claims, doses for which fell within EFSA’s safe limits, into EU law books.

After heated dialogue on energy drink consumption and obesity among young people, the MEPs sent the European Commission back to the drawing board.

The four pending claims are: 

  • “Caffeine contributes to an increase in endurance performance.” [sports population]
  • “Caffeine contributes to an increase in endurance capacity.” [sports population]
  • “Caffeine helps to increase alertness.” [general population]
  • “Caffeine helps to improve concentration.” [general population]

A fifth claim has already been rejected: “Caffeine contributes to a reduction in the rated perceived exertion/effort during exercise.”

At the recent Sports Nutrition Conference (#SNC16) organised by NutraIngredients in partnership with ESSNA, Maria Thijssen, regulatory affairs manager for ESSNA member company Nutritional GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), told us industry was lobbying for one of two solutions for the claims.

Lobbying for a solution 

One option suggests the current draft single annex amendment – which ties the fate of all four claims – is split into two separate amendments for the two sports-specific claims and the two general population claims on alertness and concentration.  

“As we currently stand, if [the European Parliament] aren’t happy with two of the claims, they can’t approve all four. So that’s the dilemma we’re in at the moment,” Thijssen said.

Another option could be to alter the terms of the claims so that they can only be used on food supplement products, not energy drinks, or that the claims are used only on products marketed specifically for sportspeople.

“That could help eliminate sugary drinks from being allowed to use the claims,” she said.  

Parliamentary debates on the claims centred largely on the potential health halo that could be created over sugary energy drinks, which the MEPs said would exacerbate the obesity crisis.

Doing it for the kids

“I think that the fact that we’ve identified vulnerable [young] consumers should make every FBO [food business operator] stand up and acknowledge that we’ve got a vulnerable consumer, they’re suffering as a result, it’s something that is very real and it is happening.”

She said industry had a responsibility to work with the European Commission, Parliament and EU member state governments to tackle the issue of obesity.

However she added this should be done without “limiting or over-restricting” products that could hold big benefits for sportspeople.

“Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater we just need to look at it and find a way of making sure the vulnerable consumer, which is the adolescent, is protected.”

She said the caffeine controversy had shown that claims are more likely to be approved if they specified a target population.

Yet how easy is this when the sports nutrition industry is increasingly broadening its consumer group?

At the #SNC16 event, many of the speakers discussed this category blurring, with products not traditionally included in the market brought into the fold to target less hardcore, more casually 'active' groups. 

Asked if the marketing of sports products should be restricted to sportspeople to avoid the uproar seen in the parliamentary debates, she said these products were still relevant for people who did not consider themselves athletes or even committed gym goers but who had set themselves a personal goal of, for example, running a half marathon.

‘The spirit of the law is that you protect your consumer’

Ultimately she said the issue went beyond sticking to the letter of EU law and to a company’s responsibility to make safe products that don’t mislead the consumer.

“So even if you were complying with all the rules and we still had this problem, it would be something that in the spirit of the legislation we’d still have to turn around and look at.

“It’s not something we can just carry on blindly going: ‘No, no, no, we comply with the law we’re not going to think about it.’ You have to, because essentially the spirit of the law is that you protect your consumer, especially protecting vulnerable groups of people, and you’re trying to market a safe and effective product.”

Despite caffeine’s well-known effects of alertness, she said claims were important because “if over time that information starts disappearing from packaging, then people will forget”.

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