Sunday, August 30, 2009

EU bites into cereals’ health claims

For once I agree with the EU. A LOT of food claims are just fraud

BREAKFAST cereal manufacturers will be forced to abandon many health claims used to promote their products unless they can be scientifically proven, under a European Union clampdown. The move will hit some of the UK’s most popular cereal brands and other foods, many of which claim to improve health because they have been enhanced with ingredients such as vitamins and oat bran, but which also contain high levels of sugar, fat or salt. Kellogg’s, which makes Special K, Frosties and Optivita, and NestlĂ©, which produces Shreddies and Cheerios, could be among the biggest firms affected.

Corinne Vaughan, deputy head of nutrition at the Food Standards Agency, said: “Cereal manufacturers make a variety of health claims. Some are genuine, but other foods are heavily promoted on the basis of health claims for one ingredient, while unhealthy levels of sugar, fat and salt hardly get a mention.”

Among the products which could be affected are Sugar Puffs, which claim on their packaging to help growth, maintain healthy skin and eyes, and boost the digestive and nervous systems. However, as their name suggests, sugar accounts for 35% of their content. Weetabix’s Weetos brand, comprising chocolate-covered wheat hoops, boasts on the front of the packet that it is “wholegrain goodness fortified with vitamins and iron”. The 23.5% sugar content is noted only on a nutrition label. “We need more clarity in the science behind the claims and in the labelling,” said Susan Jebb, head of the Medical Research Council’s human nutrition unit.

There are two facets to the Brussels crackdown. First, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) is conducting a scientific review of 4,000 health claims made by food producers, including cereal manufacturers. Most of the 60-plus rulings published so far for foods, including pro-biotic drinks and yoghurts, have been dismissive of industry health claims.

The European Commission is also developing a scheme to restrict food manufacturers promoting products on the basis of one or two healthy ingredients if they also contain “high” levels of sugar, saturated fat or salt. The crucial question is how “high” will be defined. Health campaigners and Britain’s Food Standards Agency believe foods with more than 15% sugar should be considered “high”. However, last week it emerged that Europe was likely to settle on a figure of 20%-25% for cereals.

Even at these higher levels, the European rulings could dramatically change the way cereals are promoted. Those affected could include brands such as Kellogg’s Special K Yoghurty, which is targeted at slimmers but contains 23% sugar, or Kellogg’s Bran Flakes, which is endorsed by Sir Chris Hoy, the Olympic cycling champion. The blurb on packets of Bran Flakes suggests that a daily bowl can enhance heart health, keep nervous and immune systems working and support concentration levels. The 22% sugar content — equivalent to two to three heaped teaspoons in each bowl served with milk — is mentioned only in small print.

Optivita, another Kellogg’s cereal, uses health claims even more prominently. Its packet bears a large banner claiming it can lower blood cholesterol, backed by a dozen red heart logos and an endorsement from Heart UK, a medical charity. The claim is based on the fact that Optivita is enhanced with oat bran, which has been shown to lower cholesterol if several grams are eaten regularly each day. Optivita contains about 1g of active bran per bowl — less than a third of the weight of a 1p coin. By contrast, a bowl of Optivita Nut Oat Crisp with milk contains 14g of sugar, equivalent to three heaped teaspoons, as well as 7g of fat.

Kellogg’s, which admits making a “five-figure” donation to Heart UK, accepts there is no published scientific evidence to show that eating a daily bowl of Optivita lowers cholesterol. A spokesman said: “We do have evidence of our own to show it reduces cholesterol, but we have not published it as it is proprietary and confidential. All our claims are backed by good science.”

The new EU rules may also hit some brands of muesli, whose healthy reputation often belies their high levels of added sugar. Alpen, for example, contains 23% sugar, some from fruit but some added, making a total of two to three teaspoons of sugar per bowl. By contrast Berries & Cherries muesli, from Dorset Cereals has 41% sugar, but most of this comes from fruit so it is unlikely to be affected by the rules.

A spokesman for the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers, said: “Cereals may often be high in sugar but they bring many other wonderful nutrients to the table like vitamins and minerals so they can still be seen as healthy.”


DNA swap could cure inherited diseases

There was another report on this last year

The prospect of a human baby with three biological parents has moved closer after scientists created monkeys using a technique that one day could stop children from inheriting severe genetic diseases. The birth of four healthy macaque monkeys in the US offers the strongest evidence yet that DNA can be transplanted safely from one egg to another to correct genetic defects that damage health.

The successful experiment in a close human relative suggests that it should be possible within a few years to use the method to help women who carry genetic disorders to avoid passing them to their children. It should allow scientists to replace faulty “cellular batteries” called mitochondria, which affect about 1 in 6,500 births. While most mitochondria defects have mild effects, some can trigger severe brain, heart, muscle and liver conditions, as well as cancer, diabetes, blindness and deafness.

The technique is controversial, however, because the children it creates would inherit genetic material from three parents. The mother and father would contribute most of their child’s DNA but a small amount would come from a second woman donating healthy mitochondria. Such children would be the first produced by germline genetic engineering, in which genes introduced by artificial means would be passed to successive generations.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, of the Oregon National Primate Research Centre, who led the research, said that this would be justified because it was the only viable approach. “The only way to treat these defects is to replace the genes,” he said. “This is gene transfer involving the germline, which is a concern, but we are pursuing it not for general use but for patients with mutations they will pass to the next generation. We believe this technology will prevent that.”

Although more than 99 per cent of a cell’s DNA is carried in the nucleus, a small amount resides in the mitochondria — tiny energy-producing structures inherited from the mother — and it is mutations in this mitochondrial DNA that can cause disease. In the research, published in the journal Nature, the modified eggs containing chromosomes from one female monkey and mitochondria from another, were fertilised by injecting a sperm. The resulting embryos were transferred to the wombs of surrogate mothers.

The first monkeys to be born were twins called Mito and Tracker, after a dye called MitoTracker used in the experiments. Two more monkeys were born after later experiments, named Spindler and Spindly after a genetic structure called the spindle along which chromosomes divide.

Tests showed that none of the monkeys had any trace of mitochondrial DNA from the mother that provided their nuclear DNA, suggesting that the process was successful. “We consider it a big achievement,” Dr Mitalipov said. “Anything we study and achieve in non-human primates can be translated much more easily to humans.” He said that the technology could be applied “pretty quickly” in humans, and that his team would apply to an internal ethics board and the US Food and Drug Adminstration for permission to try it with human eggs.

Clinical use will have to wait for the results of experiments with humans and follow-up studies on the health of the four monkeys. “It may take a few more years,” Dr Mitalipov said.

Similar research is being carried out by a team from Newcastle University using a slightly different technique. British scientists welcomed the Oregon study and urged the Government to change the law. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA), passed last year, allows such experiments on embryos but made it illegal for altered embryos to be implanted into the womb. Ministers have the power to rescind this ban.

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the National Institute for Medical Research in London, said: “These are proof-of-principle experiments suggesting that transfer of the nuclear genetic material from one egg to another may be a valid way to avoid the devastating problems associated with the inheritance of abnormal mitochondria that are present in the eggs of some women. “It would seem unreasonable to delay real trials where any embryos produced were transferred to the women who wanted to avoid having children affected with these diseases.” He added: “I think it is quite reasonable to activate the regulation-making power now.”


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