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People wasting billions on “quack” health foods, says nutritionist

26 November 2008

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Overweight people are wasting billions of pounds on food products that “imply” they aid weight loss but are actually totally ineffective, according to a nutritional expert on today.

The author, Professor Lean from the University of Glasgow, hopes a new EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices, adopted this year in the UK, will protect “vulnerable consumers tricked into buying useless food products or supplements in attempts to combat their disease.”

Professor Lean says that, unlike medicines, food products marketed for health reasons are not subject to the same stringent research trials and control, and consumers are often misled.

It is already illegal for unsubstantiated claims to be made about the composition or nutritional function of food products, eg, that they are low in fat, high in fibre or help lower cholesterol, and it is also illegal to claim that a food can treat or prevent any disease — including obesity.

However, many unsubstantiated health claims are still made, or implied, says Professor Lean, in “misleading marketing” within images on packaging or on websites that suggest products help weight control when there is no evidence.

Professor Lean is concerned that obese people have been fooled into parting with billions of pounds every year on products that cannot help them. In 2000, people in the US spent $35bn (£22bn) on weight loss products, many of them making false and unsubstantiated claims.

The “commercial exploitation of vulnerable patients with quack medicines” will hopefully be brought to an end with the introduction of the new EU directive, says Lean.

However, he says the laws need to be enforced proactively to enable doctors and consumers to move towards managing diseases confidently with evidence-based treatment and diet programmes.

He points out that, of all the hundreds of products currently on sale to help people lose weight, only energy-restricted diets and exercise, the drugs orlistat and sibutramine, and in some cases bariatric surgery, are safe, effective and cost-effective. The remainder, he says, are either not effective or not safe.