In China, sodium hyaluronate, the salt form of hyaluronic acid (HA), was first approved in 2008 as a novel food ingredient, and can be used in “health foods” upon product registration.
Only registered health foods, such as supplements in liquid, capsule, powder, tablet and gummy formats, can bear function claims.
However, Lennie Tao, food regulatory analyst at Chemlinked, told us: “Although regular foods are not allowed to make function claims due to the regulations, it is easy to find products that imply functions such as ‘advancing skin hydration’ and ‘anti-oxidation’.”
In 2021, the scope of sodium-hyaluronate application was expanded to include dairy products, alcoholic drinks, frozen beverages, cocoa and chocolate products, and candy.
These products must indicate on their labels that they are not suitable for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and babies.
Despite the lack of clinical evidence that prove the benefits of beverages containing sodium hyaluronate, consumers found that the prices of these products could be four to five times higher than normal drinks.
This is compounded by a large number of social media posts by influencers that claim efficacy based on “personal experience”.
As a result, an increasing number of consumers have reached out to the Shanghai Consumer Council to express their concerns.
After checking with the National Health Commission (NHC) last October, the Council verified that the approval of sodium hyaluronate as an ingredient in regular foods is based on safety reviews.
In its statement, the Council said that the NHC did not respond to questions on the functions and effects of sodium hyaluronate.
The Council believes that the F&B companies had intended to sell the functions of HA but submitted applications for safety reviews instead, and has called for the authority to be “more responsible for consumers”.
Tighter rules needed
Furthermore, the Council consulted experts who stated: “HA is a polysaccharide used to improve skin hydration and quality through medical cosmetic injection. When people consume foods containing HA, the latter gets broken down into monosaccharides and disaccharides after entering the gastrointestinal tract, and then reabsorbed into the body. There is no authoritative evidence to prove that consuming HA can promote its synthesis in the body.”
On the same note, Tao mentioned it is not the first time that the function of HA has raised concerns.
“Ever since the approval of sodium hyaluronate in regular foods, it’s become normal to see the public and the media discuss about whether buying HA-containing foods is worthy,” she added.
For example, China Consumer News published an article in 2021 that questioned the function of HA in regular foods.
The Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology had also released a list of tips to help consumers identify the differences between HA-containing health foods and HA-containing regular foods.
“It is the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), rather than the NHC, that should be responsible for the HA food chaos. More efforts should be made by the market-supervision authority to regulate online advertising, such as claims shown on product webpages and e-commerce platforms,” said Tao.