But to what end?
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA; Parma, Italy) last week held a meeting on gut health and immune function, hoping to elucidate to the public what physiological effects can be considered beneficial and adequate for substantiating health claims in these areas of health. Members of academia, related industry, EU member states, and the European Commission attended the meeting in Amsterdam led by members of EFSA’s Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies (NDA) panel.
Increasing numbers of good bifidobacteria or lactobacilli (in the case of probiotics) is not considered a beneficial physiological effect for gastrointestinal health, said the NDA Panel. The claimed effect of lowering numbers of commensal microorganisms, like bacteriodes, is also not considered to necessarily be a benefit.
On the other hand, the NDA Panel confirmed that reducing the numbers of specific pathogenic microorganisms (or their toxins) in the GI tract could very well be a beneficial effect. Such pathogens include gastrointestinal pathogens like Clostridium difficile and H. pylori and food-borne pathogens, such as Salmonella.
Supportive outcome measures would include reduction of numbers, proportions or prevalence of pathogens; reduction of toxins; and clinical outcomes like reduced incidence, symptom severity, and duration of GI infections. Pathogens referenced by the considered include and GI pathogens Clostridium difficile andH. pylori and food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella, S. aureus.
Changes in markers of inflammation (e.g. interleukins or serum C-reactive protein), often referenced in published science on immune function, do not necessarily indicate a beneficial physiological effect, said the NDA Panel.
“[These markers] all say something about the function of the immune system, but it’s not necessarily so that, for instance, an increment in values of any of these markers is by definition ‘beneficial,’” said panel member Henk van Loveren. “Actually it may be detrimental [with] some of them.”
The panel also highlighted preference for solidly defined claims like “Maintaining normal skin immune function after UV-exposure” over more general undefined clamis like “immune health” or “natural defense.”
But are there conditions where immune parameters alone may be sufficient in a claim? Maybe. “It’s not so easy,” noted van Loveren, “but perhaps it can be done under certain circumstances.”
“Today, we heard in detail the challenges applicants face when preparing applications for health claims,” said panel chair Albery Flynn. “This meeting has been very helpful for us in developing more detailed guidance.”
A webcast of the entire meeting is available at EFSA.