Faced with alarming childhood obesity cases, the European Commission is calling on member states to take action in the procurement of healthy food for schools.
A report released by the Maltese Presidency and the European Commission on Wednesday (22 February) says that childhood obesity should be tackled at an early stage and that schools can play a positive role in encouraging healthy eating habits.
“Considering the amount of time that children spend at school, as well as the fact that in many European countries students consume at least one daily main meal there, schools are an ideal environment for supporting healthy behaviours,” the report states.
According to the report, benefits of increasing access to healthy food in schools include the development of better dietary habits in childhood, reduced incidence of childhood obesity and improved school attendance and performance.
The report also provides a framework to make the process easier.
Businesses within the European social foodservice market could also be rewarded for providing nutritionally-balanced meals and food products and looking for innovative ways to improve public health, the report said.
The Commission outlines ways of making the healthy food procurement process easier for schools by setting clear specifications about recommended healthy food and food services. These include specifying key food groups and nutrients, as well as food preparation.
“Behind closed doors”
Industry association FoodDrinkEurope said that while it supports the report’s overall initiative, its creation could have been better executed by involving stakeholders.
“We consider school meals to be a good tool to use as part of the efforts to reduce overweight and obesity. Besides the quality of the meals themselves, such an approach also helps teach good dietary habits,” FoodDrinkEurope Director General Mella Frewen emphasised.
“We, however, regret that stakeholders were not duly involved and that discussions were held behind closed doors,” she said.
She continued, saying that school food standards needed to be holistic and science-based.
“In this respect, it is difficult to accept the classification of certain foods as ‘healthy foods’, which is neither science-based nor helpful. It is much more relevant to consider healthy and balanced diets,” she added.
Nestlé removes 18,000 tonnes of sugar
In the meantime, multinational Nestlé has said it will remove at least 18,000 tonnes of sugar from the products it sells in Europe by 2020, which would result in 5% less sugar in its European market.
The company said the sugar reduction goal is in support of action plans by the European Commission and member states to promote health and reduce obesity.
“When one in three children is overweight or obese, it is clear that we have to do more to offer them healthier choices and help promote an active lifestyle,” said Marco Settembri, executive vice president of Nestlé.
Bart Vandewaetere, in charge of Nestlé’s relations with European institutions, told Euractiv.com that good nutrition was recognised more and more as a key driver of long-term health outcomes.
“General knowledge about what constitutes good nutrition is spreading faster than ever before, and consumers are paying more attention to it. They are also willing to pay a premium for products that are perceived to be high-value in that regard, or not to buy it at all,” he noted.
Changing the tastes
Asked about the changing tastes challenge, Vandewaetere replied that consumers had become accustomed to a sweet taste and that they don’t accept strong changes to a product.
“Changing consumer preferences requires a multi-stakeholder approach. No single organisation can tackle this challenge alone,” he said.
For Vandewaetere, in order to change consumer preferences, the whole industry, including private label producers, needed to be on board.
“As member states develop action plans on food product improvement, this is a unique opportunity to set up one European framework, one European level playing field. This will stimulate innovation and lead to a healthier future for Europe,” Vandewaetere emphasised.
The European Commission is currently leading a high-level group on nutrition and physical activity, in which European government representatives are dealing with the case.
The aim is for all member states to have national reformulation plans by the end of 2017 and create conditions for products low in salt, sugar or fat to be available in any supermarket, anywhere, at affordable prices.
Commission sources said that the executive had made substantive progress in supporting member states on food reformulation in the group.
“This is important to give citizens a real chance to make healthy choices,” the EU sources explained.