Harnessing Celebrity Power

Published on the 13th Feb, 2019 by Azmina

I was interviewed a few days ago by Nutraingredients.com about my views on whether celebrities should be banned from endorsing health products. Here’s a snippet of the questions asked by Nikki Cutler, and my candid responses.

A close up of a young woman vlogging herself whilst preparing a smoothie

Getty / Azmanjaka: A close up of a young woman vlogging herself whilst preparing a smoothie

First of all, do you think there should be a ban on celebs endorsing health products on social media or not?

This is not a black and white question. If they have a professionally recognised qualification, or have collaborated with a dietitian or registered nutritionist and can back up what they say with solid scientific evidence, they can be invaluable. Celebrities are able to connect with people in a way professionals may not. What’s important is that we protect the public from nutrition misinformation, and that any endorsements are based on health facts, not health fraud. It’s also important that payment for endorsement is clearly disclosed.

Would you agree that any manufacturer of ‘health benefitting’ products is morally obligated to sell that products based on the proven health benefits, not by the spokesperson they associate with their brand?

Agree – they should be abiding by EFSA Regulations and only using authorised health claims in all communications.

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Do you agree that it is as much the brands’ responsibility as it is the social media companies’ to ensure that celebrities aren’t paid to promote health products?

Brands can harness the power of celebrities to help people make healthier choices, after all they are role models with influence. BUT this should be strictly within the EFSA regulations for making a health claim, and should be backed up with evidence for making that claim. And ideally a qualified and regulated  dietitian or nutritionist should be supporting such communication. Most reputable brands do abide by EFSA rules.

Would you agree that asking a celebrity to endorse a product will encourage young and impressionable people, especially girls, to think they look the way they do because they consume that product?

Yes. They have a responsibility as role models. They could be providing valuable guidance to young people if they sought collaboration with an expert before promoting health products. Food and nutrition misinformation can have harmful effects. A case study of one success, albeit someone in the public eye, does not mean you will have enough context to interpret how a product could be of benefit to you.

A real worry: National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) data suggest that teenage girls are most at risk of low intakes of several important minerals, with 22% of them having intakes lower than the LRNI or Lower Reference Nutrient Intake for calcium, and 27% for iodine. (Intakes below the LRNI are inadequate for most individuals). Yet, this is probably a time when girls are experimenting with trendy eating practices, and are being influenced by what they see and hear from non-experts on social media. Both these nutrients are abundant in milk, so trends, for example, to go dairy free exacerbate this risk.

Do you agree it will also encourage them to buy products they don’t need without even checking the ingredients which could lead to health problems?

Agree. Much of the fake news is based at best on preliminary results from small scale studies, or anecdotal results with little scientific basis. Nutritional guidelines are based on solid evidence from robust research. The science needs to be interpreted appropriately so that it can be taken in context.

Would you agree that promoting appetite suppressant products online encourages eating disorders?

People with eating disorders have been shown to use diet pills, but there are not enough empirical studies to show that diet pills cause eating disorders.

How can this activity best be regulated?

Consumers are increasingly taking their health into their own hands, and self-efficacy is a good thing. But it needs to be supported by credible accurate knowledge and support from qualified professionals such as dietitians and registered nutritionists. There needs to be more awareness of the difference between people who may call themselves a nutritionist or diet expert, which is currently unregulated, and a dietitian, which is a protected title. Many people claim to be experts in nutrition yet have very limited knowledge and offer no protection to the public, as they are not regulated. There needs to be a simple way to check background and qualifications. Dietitians are the only nutrition professionals to be regulated by law, and they are governed by an ethical code. More on this.

You wouldn’t go to a dentist to have your eyes tested, so why look to a celebrity to advise you on nutrition?

Are there any brands/celebs your aware of that do this frequently?

Rather not answer.

How can consumers best tell when celebs are endorsing products simply because they’re being paid to do so?

Consumers are bombarded with fake nutrition news and perhaps the more sensational it is the more attractive it becomes! It’s not easy to differentiate between celebrities who truly believe in a health product without having been paid to promote it, and those who do it for financial gain. So it’s best to ignore the hype, accept such claims simply as entertainment, and look to accredited professionals for your health advice. Misinterpretation and exaggeration of nutrition research, whether intentional or not, is health quackery and can be potentially harmful.

Read the published interview here.