A Daily Express headline claimed last week that “EU says water is not healthy” on the front page in letters 42 mm high. This is a perfect example of a euromyth. Perfect, because it is not true; perfect, because it damns the European Union; and perfect, because everything we need to know to debunk it is available on the public record.
The origin of the story is the rejection by the European Commission of a proposal that the register of approved disease risk claims for food and drink should include the claim that “Regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration and of concomitant decrease of performance.” At first sight, that decision is barmy and deserves the worst that headlines can throw at it. But a look at the facts reveals a rather different story.
The register of approved disease risk claims was created by a European regulation on nutrition and health claims made on foods (1924/2006), which requires prior approval before food and drink manufacturers can make such claims about their products. No longer will the claim that eating X is good for you be permitted on the say-so of scientists employed by the manufacturers of X. In future, all such claims have to be approved by an independent panel of scientists convened by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and then confirmed by the European Commission. This system is intended to protect consumers from false or misleading claims, and will also ensure a level playing field for companies in the X industry. It may be bureaucracy, but isn’t that what bureaucracy is for?
In the case of the dehydration claim, the proposal was rejected by the EFSA scientific panel not because dehydration cannot be prevented by drinking water but because it is not a disease risk claim. A disease risk claim “states, suggests or implies that the consumption of a food category, a food or one of its constituents significantly reduces a risk factor in the development of a human disease” (article 2(6)); the proposal sent to EFSA asserted not that dehydration was a risk factor but that it was the disease itself.
There is in fact a separate register of “Health claims describing or referring to the role of a nutrient or other substance in growth, development and the functions of the body” (article 13(1)), which is where a claim about water and dehydration belongs. The application to EFSA was rejected not because it was unfounded scientifically but because it was submitted under the wrong regulatory heading.
So, this Commission decision is not at all a “scarcely believable ruling”, not at all “new madness from Brussels”, not at all “at odds with both science and common sense”. It is following correctly the rules that have been laid down to prevent consumers from being misled. What if the Commission were to bend the rules, or not follow the correct procedures in the law? What would the newspapers say then?
But we can go further. This euromyth has not arisen from a misunderstanding. The facts, when inconvenient, are simply ignored.
And the fact is that the EFSA panel has approved other claims about the beneficial effects of drinking water. Two health claims regarding the “maintenance of normal physical and cognitive functions” and the “maintenance of normal thermoregulation” have been approved, with an EFSA scientific opinion reading:
“The Panel concludes that a cause and effect relationship has been established between the dietary intake of water and maintenance of normal physical and cognitive functions.”
“The Panel concludes that a cause and effect relationship has been established between the dietary intake of water and maintenance of normal thermoregulation.”
In each case, “The Panel considers that, in order to obtain the claimed effect, at least 2.0 L of water should be consumed per day.”
The support for these health claims by EFSA directly refutes the headline that “EU says water is not healthy”. The Daily Express knew about these other claims before going to print, but printed the inaccurate headline anyway. That is where euromyths come from.