New law on weightloss products could escalate obesity in Europe

Science says diet replacements can help lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight. [Shutterstock]

New EU regulation on total diet replacement will take effect by early October, after MEPs voted in September to increase the protein and fat requirements in meal replacements, but the industry has warned that it may be ineffective and further aggravate the problem of obesity.

Meal replacements, known in the industry as total diet replacements (TDR), are meant to help weight loss by substituting meals with low-calorie shakes, smoothies and bars.

According to scientific research, they can help lose weight and maintain a healthy weight in the long term. This, according to the industry, has positive impacts on obesity-related non-communicable illnesses such as diabetes, knee injuries, and cardiovascular diseases, and constitutes a public health benefit.

In 2015 the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) issued a scientific opinion to raise the fatty acids and protein content of meal replacement.

TDR products must contain “all indispensable nutrients” to be “safe and suitable when consumed as a sole source of nutrition, for several weeks to months, by overweight or obese adults in the context of energy-restricted diets for weight reduction.”

The mandated levels are higher compared to what the industry is producing today. The European Parliament voted in favour of raising these requirements by a narrow majority (345 vs. 344) on 13 September.

Rancid products

Yet the industry claims that under new, higher requirements, meal replacements “would taste unpleasant, have an unappealing texture and turn rancid very quickly”, Anthony Leeds, Medical Director of the European Very Low-Calorie Diet (VLCD) Industry Group told EURACTIV.com.

“The European Food Safety Authority itself has openly admitted that some of its recommendations are based on theory rather than hard scientific evidence. This legislation is not supported by evidence showing that current compositions are anything other than safe, nor is there hard scientific evidence to show that the new changes would make them safer for consumers,” said Leeds.

He also warned that rising production costs would be passed on to consumers, who would not be able to afford them – and ultimately, “is very likely to escalate the already shocking public health challenge of obesity in Europe.”

Consumers would turn to highly restrictive “fad diets” or gastrointestinal surgery, which are disproportionate and not regulated, they say.

British MEP Julie Girling, of the European Conservatives and Reformists, who opposed the new regulation, said:

“These very low-calorie diets provide a total replacement for people’s nutritional intake – and they work well in helping very obese people lose weight and avoid diabetes. But after 30 years of safe use in Europe, they could now disappear. That is a grave concern to people who have effectively had their lives and limbs saved by these products.”

Between 30 to 70% of adults in Europe are overweight and 10 to 30% are obese, according to the WHO. Obesity-related costs account for 7% of public health expenditure.

Rise in dairy business

However not all are pessimistic: the EU dairy sector has welcomed the new recipe requirements, saying they come at a negligible cost increase. Most protein in meal replacements comes from whey, a by-product of cheese production. And higher protein requirements mean increased business for dairy producers.

Ahead of the vote, Alexander Anton, head of the European Dairy Association, said: “The EFSA scientific opinion concludes that minimum daily protein intake should be provided. We really expect MEPs to back the motion which is supported by the latest science.”