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ASA pours cold water on coffee health claims

10 March 2009 by
ASA pours cold water on coffee health claims

The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld complaints against the British Coffee Association for claims that coffee can ‘play an active role… in terms of health and fitness', that it could alleviate the symptoms of the common cold, and that if taken with Ibuprofen, coffee could act as a safe painkiller.

Coffee, said the claims, ‘may confer health benefits to assist you as you hit the gym'.

The claims were made in a fitness magazine, and a reader complained that the advertisement was misleading because the claimed health benefits could not be proven. The reader also complained that a slogan saying ‘relax and enjoy four to five cups of coffee a day' mimicked the Government's health campaign recommending five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and implied that coffee consumption was endorsed as part of a healthy diet.

The ASA itself questioned references to antioxidants and the Ibuprofen reference.

The BCA sent a dossier of evidence comprising studies which said, among other things, that ‘a wealth of studies had concluded that, for many individuals, caffeine could positively affect athletic performance'.

The BCA evidence claimed that ‘many studies' supported the fact that coffee had been shown to be a major source of dietary antioxidants, and that the use of caffeine as a ‘pain-killing adjunct' had been researched by a headache clinic in Chicago.

The ASA sought its own expert advice, and concluded that, although the studies submitted by the BCA were of a reputable scientific standard, the advertisement was not sufficiently clear to avoid readers being misled about the precise benefits that might be obtained by consuming caffeine through drinking coffee.

Although the ASA accepted that there was published scientific evidence to show that caffeine could temporarily alleviate the lethargy experienced when suffering from a cold, the reference to ‘alleviating symptoms' of a cold could not be permitted.

The ruling said: "We understood from our expert advice that caffeine was a stimulant that acted on the central nervous system to temporarily increase feelings of alertness and there was published scientific evidence to show that caffeine could temporarily alleviate the lethargy experienced when suffering from a cold. However, we noted the ad referred to ‘alleviating symptoms' of a cold, and because this was a medicinal claim for a food, we understood that it was not permitted under Schedule 6 of the Food Labelling Regulations 1996."

Although the ASA accepted that coffee had been shown to enhance the painkilling effects of aspirin and ibuprofen in a number of studies, this claim was again a medicinal claim for a food, and was not permitted.

The ASA also held that the advertisement exaggerated the likely effect from coffee consumption before exercise for the average gym user.

"We were further concerned that the claim that ‘moderate coffee consumption … may confer health benefits to assist you as you hit the gym' was ambiguous and could imply that coffee consumption conveyed a nutritional or health benefit per se. We acknowledged that the BCA had intended to convey that caffeine could reduce an exercising person's feeling of fatigue or rate of perceived exhaustion, but considered that the ad was not sufficiently clear about that to avoid readers being misled about the precise benefits that might be obtained by consuming caffeine through drinking coffee. We concluded that the claim was likely to mislead."

With regard to coffee as a claimed painkiller, the ASA said: "Our expert said coffee had little pain-killing effect when administered alone, but had been shown to enhance the painkilling effects of aspirin and Ibuprofen in a number of studies. He said the studies provided by the BCA in respect of that were placebo-controlled and seemingly well conducted.

"We accepted that the BCA had provided evidence to show that low doses of caffeine such as those found in a cup of coffee could enhance the analgesic effect of some painkilling medication. However, we noted that, the claim ‘The Painkilling Effect - Try having a cup of coffee with an Ibuprofen tablet… this has been shown to increase the painkilling effect", was a medicinal claim for a food and, as such, is not permitted."

The Advertising Standards Authority recommended that the BCA take its advice before advertising again.

By Ian Boughton

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