Biolife Multivitamin – ASA ruling

18 January 2013

A consumer laid a complaint against a range of claims being made by Biolife Multivitamins. The ASA agreed that as the company could not prove their claims, that they were therefore misleading and in conflict with the ASA regulations.

Biolife Multivitamin / K Charleston / 19650
Ruling of the : ASA Directorate
In the matter between:
Kevin Charleston Complainant(s)/Appellant(s)
Biolife cc Respondent

15 Jan 2013

Mr Charleston lodged a consumer complaint against a print advertisement for the respondent’s ‘BIOLIFE Multivitamin” that appeared in the Cape Times during 2012.

The advertisement contains, inter alia, the following claims:

“This product contains the most comprehensive range of ingredients on the local or international market and is one of the very few vegetable-based capsules available in a multivitamin form”;

“The product contains many anti-oxidants which are believed to be essential for maintaining one’s immune system in an optimal state”;

“Anti-oxidants are necessary to prevent free radicals from damaging our good cells. When one breathes in oxygen, which contains all the other pollutants found in the atmosphere, our cells lose an electron, becoming unstable cells known as free radicals … We actually age slowly over time by the process of oxidation. Consider an apple cut in half and exposed to the atmosphere. It turns brown by the process of oxidation. However, immerse one half in and anti-oxidant, such as orange juice (vitamin C), and it remains fresh and does not turn brown. So taking a multivitamin with abundant antioxidants is essential for improving the quality of your life”;

“Unfortunately, the manner in which we ‘work, eat and play’ necessitates supplementation with vitamins and a balanced approach to exercise, work and nutrition”;

“Starting your day with a Biolife multivitamin will certainly boost your immune system and, in so doing, reduce incidence of disease …”

The complainant raised the following concerns:

It is fairly quick and easy to find many other supplements that contain many more ingredients than the respondent’s, thus negating the claim that this product “… contains the most comprehensive range of ingredients on the local or international market …” The complainant provided two other examples, and argued that this claim is therefore misleading.

While true that cells are damaged by oxidation and that anti-oxidants retard the speed at which this occurs, it should be noted that free-radicals are also essential to life. The air we breathe contains oxygen, and perhaps other pollutants, but the oxygen is an atom, which by its very definition cannot contain pollutants as claimed.

Cells do not “become” free radicals as claimed. Free radicals are atoms, ions or molecules. In addition, cells do not lose “an electron” as claimed. The chemical and molecular interactions within a single cell may result in the transfer of billions of electrons.

The advertisement is incorrectly attributing the complex phenomenon of aging solely to oxidation. He added that the example of an apple changing colour is deliberately deceptive because this occurs as a result of enzymatic browning, and not oxidation. When apples are placed in an acidic solution, the pH is lowered, thus preventing this reaction.

Recent studies have shown no benefit to supplementing with multivitamins, and antioxidant supplementation may even be associated with poorer quality of life. In addition, there are no studies to show that the general population targeted by this advertisement even need supplementation, and quite a number that show that supplementation is of no benefit and possibly harmful. The respondent’s suggestion that supplementation is not only beneficial but necessary requires substantiation.

The complainant provided links to various literature sources in support of his arguments.

The complainant identified the following clauses of the Code as relevant:

Section II, Clause 4.1 (Substantiation)

Section II, Clause 4.2.1 (Misleading claims)

Section II, Clause 4.2.2 (Puffery)

Section II, Clause 4.2.5 [cited as Clause 4.2.4 by the complainant] (Statistics and scientific information).

The respondent outlined its objective and operation, and answered the complaint as follows:

It will amend the reference to containing the “most comprehensive” range. While this was true at the time of formulating the product, it no longer appears to be, and all wording to this effect will be corrected.

The reference to breathing in “oxygen” will be changed to refer to breathing in “air” to satisfy the complaint.

The respondent’s research indicates that the browning of an apple is due to oxidation, and as such it disagrees with the complainant.

The complainant is correct in arguing that it is the molecules within cells that lose electrons. This could have a ripple-effect, resulting in the disruption of a living cell.

It was never the respondent’s intention to deceive people, and this debate over supplementation or not has been, and probably will be strong for many years. The respondent has read numerous studies on the issue and is a firm believer in the benefits of supplementation. Reference was also made to a few online articles on the topic.

The ASA Directorate considered all the relevant documentation submitted by the respective parties.

Voluntary undertakings
The respondent undertook to amend the following claims:

“This product contains the most comprehensive range of ingredients on the local or international market …”, will henceforth merely state it is “a comprehensive” range, and no reference will be made to the local or international market,

“… one breathes in oxygen, which contains all the other pollutants …”, which will henceforth refer to breathing in “air” to address the complainant’s concerns.

As these undertakings appear to address the concerns as articulated by the complainant, the Directorate accepts the respondent’s undertakings on condition that the claims are removed with immediate effect within the deadlines stipulated in Clause 15.3 of the Procedural Guide and not used again in future.

The respondent’s attention is also drawn to the provisions of Clause 15.5 of the Procedural Guide, which effectively requires that these claims be removed from any and all media in which they appear.

Clause 4.2.5 of Section II of the Code reads as follows:

“Advertisements should not misuse research results or quotations from technical and scientific literature. Statistics should not be so presented as to imply that they have a greater validity than is the case. Scientific terms should not be misused, and scientific jargon and irrelevancies should not be used to make claims appear to have a scientific basis they do not possess”.

The complainant argued that the references to when and how free radicals occur and what impact oxidation has on apples and humans is inaccurate and therefore in contravention of, inter alia, this clause. The response arguably seems to suggest that technically the complainant is correct when arguing that cells do not become free radicals, but that their molecules do, but there still appears to be a debate over why apples turn brown.

For this reason, the provisions contained in Clause 4.1 of Section II of the Code are instructive and of relevance:

This clause effectively states that any and all claims that are capable of objective substantiation should be verified by an independent and credible expert in the field to which such claims relate.

The Directorate is satisfied that the references to when and how free-radicals are formed, what impact they have, as well as the process of browning in apples and the purported benefits of supplementation are all capable of objective verification from such an expert. The respondent, however, has not provided any verification from such an independent and credible expert. In the absence of such verification, the Directorate cannot accept that the respondent’s advertising claims are valid, true, or applicable to its products.

By virtue of this, the claim remain unsubstantiated and therefore in breach of the provisions of Clause 4.1 of Section II of the Code. As a consequence, the claims are also ex facie in contravention of Clause 4.2.5 of Section II, because there is currently nothing before the Directorate to show that the scientific information used is appropriate, accurate, and of relevance.

For all the above reasons, the respondent is instructed to:

Withdraw the advertising and relevant claims,

Ensure that this withdrawal is immediately actioned upon receipt of this ruling,

Ensure that the advertising and relevant claims is removed within the deadlines stipulated in Clause 15.3 of the Procedural Guide, and

Ensure that the advertising and relevant claims are not used again in future.

The complaint is partially upheld.

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