LORD WINSTON, the broadcaster and fertility doctor, has been accused by leading nutritionists of making unsubstantiated health claims about a new brand of milk as part of a £2m advertising campaign. Sarah-Kate Templeton, Medical Correspondent, reports:
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Winston, who has presented several medical and scientific series for the BBC, appears in advertisements for St Ivel Advance Omega-3 milk. In the presentation, Winston holds up a bottle of the product, which uses the slogan "clever milk". The adverts claim the milk may make children more intelligent because its additive, omega-3 fatty acid, which is normally found in fish, enhances concentration and learning.
However, two British organisations responsible for evaluating claims about the health benefits of food insist there is no firm evidence that adding omega-3 to milk improves a child's intelligence.
A statement from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said: "Evidence on the cognitive benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids is currently uncertain."
In addition, the Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI), which for the past five years has been responsible for approving health claims in Britain, has previously ruled there is insufficient evidence to assert that omega-3 improves brain power.
The JHCI, which consists of consumer groups, manufacturers and regulators, has also expressed disappointment that Dairy Crest, the maker of St Ivel Advance, failed to seek clearance for its "clever milk" adverts in advance.
Although JHCI approval is voluntary, the FSA encourages companies to have adverts validated by the organisation.
Professor Mike Lean, a member of the JHCI expert committee and head of the department of human nutrition at Glasgow University, said: "It is very disappointing that somebody like Lord Winston has allowed his authority to be used in an advert which could mislead the public.
"Dairy Crest know all about the JHCI and what it stands for. Dairy Crest have not submitted evidence for approval by the JHCI. Does this suggest that they doubt whether they have sufficient evidence for benefit to satisfy the JHCI guidelines?" Melanie Ruffell, executive director of the JHCI, said there was no doubt consumers would draw the inference from the adverts that St Ivel Advance helps children's brains. She added that an earlier investigation by the watchdog had not found enough evidence to back this claim.
"The first line of the ad, 'Omega-3 may enhance a child's concentration and learning', would be perceived by consumers as a direct health claim. It is also described as 'clever milk', most likely to be seen as a claim about the health benefits," said Ruffell.
The JHCI has granted approval for health claims in adverts for products such as Alpro Soya drink and Scottish Quality Salmon.
It is widely accepted that there are benefits from omega-3 in fish - particularly for heart function - but nutritionists are concerned that the evidence is less conclusive about the advantages on brain function. They also point out that products with added omega-3 should not be seen as a substitute for oily fish.
A spokeswoman for the FSA said: "Oily fish are the only food rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Most adults and children don't eat enough oily fish. The agency recommends at least two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily."
Lean added: "I don't know of any evidence for the value of omega-3 in milk. Omega-3 would preferably be provided by fish as it contains lots of other good things which are lost when you extract the omega-3."
A Dairy Crest spokeswoman said that, while it did not seek approval from the JHCI over "clever milk", it did consult trading standards officials.
The company said: "Expert scientific, nutritional and statutory bodies agree that we do not consume sufficient quantities of omega-3 in our diet. Recent studies have demonstrated that increased consumption of omega-3 has improved learning and concentration in some children."
Winston was unavailable to comment on his role in the adverts or why they had not been cleared by the JHCI.