Lyndsay Moss – The Scotsman.
It was a marketing man’s dream: Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup was not only one of Britain’s iconic food brands, it also improved men’s fertility. Heinz yesterday trumpeted university research which showed that eating its soup could “give guys extra oomph”. But the soup’s rise from kitchen cupboard staple to must-buy superfood proved shortlived after The Scotsman contacted sceptical fertility experts and the company admitted it had overstated the research, which it had partly funded.
The case reveals the pressure food companies face to claim health benefits for their products as they try to cash in on the superfood phenomenon, and raises questions over use of research they commission.
Heinz’s claims were based on a study involving six healthy male volunteers who were asked to consume a can of Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup every day for two weeks.
Carried out by the University of Portsmouth, the study found that a fortnight of soup-slurping had some effect on semen. Seminal levels of lycopene, the component of tomatoes which makes them red, increased by between seven and 12 per cent. Lycopene has antioxidant properties which can help protect DNA, mopping up harmful chemicals in the body called free radicals which can play a part in infertility.
It is also known that infertile men have lower levels of lycopene in their sperm, leading to suspicions that dietary changes could help them become fathers. The result, the company suggested, was the creation of “super sperm” with the potential to boost fertility. Nigel Dickie, a spokesman for Heinz, said: “It’s good to know that Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup could boost your mojo and give guys extra oomph. And for Heinz Ketchup lovers, the tomatoey goodness will put more ketchup in your bottle.”
But in fact, the Portsmouth study found that while lycopene levels rose in semen after a period of soup consumption, there was “no measurable increase” in the sperm’s ability to combat damaging free radicals.
The scientists said more research was needed to see if higher lycopene levels really would help boost fertility. Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said although the study found higher lycopene levels in the sperm, it did not find any improvement in its quality to tackle infertility.
“I am convinced that diet does have an effect on fertility,” he said. “Studies have shown that a healthy diet can help with conception. But I am not convinced that eating tomato soup every day for two weeks, on the basis of this data, is going to achieve that.
“I would much rather people ate fruit and vegetables and a sensible, healthy diet over the long-term.” Dr Pacey, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, said sperm was produced by the body over three months, so long-term changes to diet would be most effective at improving its quality, rather than a two-week alteration.
A University of Portsmouth spokesman said its scientists were “excited” by the results of the study, published in the British Journal of Urology. But he added: “While the study has demonstrated an increase in the levels of lycopene in sperm, that is only a pointer to bigger studies to find out what impact that might have on fertility. We are now in talks with Heinz to conduct a bigger study.
“But on the basis of this research alone, we cannot say that the lycopene levels in sperm boosted fertility.”
Later, a slightly more restrained Mr Dickie admitted: “There is more work to be done.” Mark Borkowski, a marketing expert, said companies could be naive in presenting research involving their products, and risked damaging their brands’ reputation.
“Companies have to know the difference between PR and advertising,” he said. “Tomato soup is loved by people; they find it a comforting idea. You do not want to risk that kind of reputation by making statements which could turn out to be wrong.”