Soft drinks producers are seeking increasingly exotic ingredients, notably fruits, for new product ideas. But, writes Annette Farr, novel foods legislation in the EU could stifle such innovation, preventing or at least delaying the introduction to European diets of ingredients with a proven history of providing health benefits in other parts of the world.

The soft drinks industry thrives on innovation, yet the consumer always deserves honesty and consistency when it comes to product health claims. So it is rather unfortunate that recent EU legislation could financially hamper the more exotic fruit drink developments.

EU Novel Foods Regulation (EC) 258/97 has been behind the recent goji berry controversy. The goji berry (also know as the Chinese wolfberry), one of a new breed of super fruits used by juice and smoothie manufacturers, has been subjected to official scrutiny under this regulation.

A novel food is defined as a food or food ingredient which does not have a significant history of consumption within the EU before May 1997. According to the regulations introduced in 1997, new foods must be shown to meet three criteria before they can be authorised for sale: they must be safe; their labelling must not be misleading; and their nutritional quality must not be inferior to other similar foods that they could replace.

After goji berry importers provided a comprehensive dossier, which included information on the use of the berries in soft and alcoholic drinks, to the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA), the agency concluded that there was sufficient evidence to indicate that goji berries had been consumed to a significant degree in the UK before May 1997, and that there were no safety concerns about their consumption. However, satisfying EU criteria may not be so straightforward.

The novel foods process is unpopular because it is time consuming and costly.  Khaled Yafi, founder of The Berry Company, says the procedure takes some two years. He maintains that entrepreneurs will not want to waste this time going through the approval process. "It is ridiculous," he says. "How do you expect the food and beverage market to evolve when there is so much red tape?"

Many trade groups have called for a more streamlined process or its outright abolishment. According to herbal specialist Dr John Wilkinson, "there are very few new novel foods and exotic fruits that are now being introduced into the EU because of the high costs of getting approval as a food".

The Berry Company has just launched a Yum Berry juice. The Yum, hailed by Yafi as the latest "superfruit on the block", comes from China. It is high in antioxidants and is said to help weight loss and promote a healthy complexion. 

Days before launch and with thousands of pounds of time-sensitive stock waiting to go on shelf, Yafi discovered that his product required novel food approval.  Fortunately, with the help of the FSA he was able to collate the evidence needed and approval was rushed through.
 
The FSA recently delivered another positive preliminary verdict on a submission for fruit from the African baobab tree. Although there was no evidence that the fruit had been safely consumed in the EU before 1997, the FSA accepted that the fruit has been safely used for centuries in Africa.

Watch out for the baobab. The tree's dried fruit pulp could soon be available in the EU if regulatory approval is forthcoming. Nutritional analysis of baobab fruit pulp has shown that the fruit is an excellent source of pectins, calcium, vitamin C and iron. It is said to have a mild slightly acidic aftertaste which can easily be masked with flavourings for use in beverages such as smoothies. 

On 1 July, another piece of European legislation came into force in the shape of new EU Nutrition & Health Claims Regulations. The principle of EC/1924/2006 is to ensure that accurate and responsible nutritional and health claims will, in future, appear on the labels of food and drink products.

The aim is to put together a list of nutrition and health claims that can be used by manufacturers across the EU by January 2010. Ultimately only health claims that are on the list will be permitted for use in the EU. Member States have until 31 January 2008 to submit their lists for evaluation and validation by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

In essence, any claim made should be truthful and not attempt to mislead consumers. The FSA points out that no foods will be allowed to say they are 'good for your heart', 'help lower cholesterol' or are one of the growing list of 'superfoods' without scientific evidence to substantiate the claim.

The idea is that consumers will not be misled by false and unsuitable statements, and trade across the EU will become harmonised.

The theory is sound, but justifiable concerns have been expressed that health claims which can be scientifically proven could, in fact, be rejected by the EFSA if they are not based on "generally accepted scientific data".

The Alliance of Natural Health, for example, believes that "the scientific substantiation procedure for health claims, as set out in the proposal, would disproportionately favour large businesses over small businesses".
 
Does EU legislation of this sort help, hinder or harmonise? There is a real risk that innovation with the baobab, goji and similar "untested" ingredients will stall.   True dedication, time and, crucially, some significant financial input will now be the order of the day when bringing new exotic drinks to market.