An ad for Benecol yoghurt drinks has been banned by the Advertising Standard Authority for misleading consumers about the drink’s health benefits.

The ad claimed Benecol had been “proven to lower cholesterol” and could “lower cholesterol up to 10% in three weeks”. In addition, it stated that “two out of three adults have high cholesterol”.

The ad was challenged on two grounds, both of which were upheld. On the cholesterol-lowering claims, it was the ASA itself that challenged the ad.

There is an authorised EU health claim for the plant stanol esters contained in Benecol, which allows food manufacturers to claim that they have been “shown to lower/reduce blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease”.

Companies are allowed to rephrase the authorised wording slightly, but the ASA said Johnson & Johnson had gone too far in its Benecol ad. “We were concerned that although the ad stated ‘LOWER CHOLESTEROL UP TO 10% in 3 weeks’, and ‘PROVEN TO LOWER CHOLESTEROL’, it did not include the required information about high cholesterol being a risk factor in the development of CHD [coronary heart disease]. We therefore considered the meaning of the authorised disease risk reduction claim was significantly altered,” it said in its ruling.

The ASA also ruled the ad’s claim that “two out of three adults have high cholesterol” was misleading. Johnson & Johnson said this claim was based on the understanding that total cholesterol of 5mmol/l or less and low density cholesterol (LDL-C) of 3 mmol/l or less were regarded as desirable, and anything exceeding these levels would amount to high or raised cholesterol.

But the ASA said there was “no official consensus” that such levels would be regarded as “high cholesterol” in healthy adults. “We considered the ad implied that two-thirds of healthy UK adults currently had cholesterol levels that were generally accepted as ‘high’, whereas we had not seen evidence that was the case. We concluded that the claim ‘two out of three adults have high cholesterol’ was misleading and that the overall impression of the ad was such that it therefore exaggerated the health benefit of the product.”

Benecol products are manufactured for Johnson & Johnson by Finnish supplier Raisio. Raisio was not immediately available for comment, but Johnson & Johnson said it was disappointed by the ruling and that it had “strong scientific evidence for the claims we made”.

“We stand behind the validity of the claims outlined in our advert,” it added. ”The claim that ‘2 out of 3 adults have high cholesterol’ is a widely used statistic in the UK. Furthermore, we believe the wording of the claims ‘lower cholesterol by up to 10% in 3 weeks’ and ‘proven to lower cholesterol’ are fair and accurate summaries of the full claim which has been evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority and approved by the European Commission.

“We value the trust that consumers place in our products and are committed to ensuring open and clear communications with them; it is not our intention to mislead in any way.