Creating healthy food environments – EU policies and key stakeholder contributions

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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As obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) continue to put a strain on society, governments around the world have committed to address this shared and complex challenge. Reducing NCDs risk factors by creating healthier food environments, the space where people meet the food system, is a key objective which requires an inclusive approach and engagement from all relevant actors. In the EU different public health and food policies aiming to achieve healthier food environments are being developed within the framework of the Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy.

ISA has engaged to proudly support a recent EURACTIV event where panellists discussed EU food policies that aim to create healthy food environments for EU citizens, focusing on the contribution of different stakeholders. Food industry has a key role to play to enable healthy diets, also thanks to reformulation with ingredients, such as low/no calorie sweeteners, that can help reduce sugar in food and drinks while keeping the pleasure of sweet taste. Contribution by other stakeholders to ensure science-based consumer education and policy-making, as well as a level playing field for industry could further help achieve the objectives of the F2F Strategy.

How can the food industry contribute to a healthier food environment?

The private sector has an important role to play in creating healthier food environments and making sure people have access to healthier foods. Policy-makers have called upon it to contribute by “reformulating products to provide healthier options that are affordable and accessible and that follow relevant nutrition facts and labelling standards.

During the Euractiv event MEP Christine Schneider, EPP shadow rapporteur on the Farm to Fork Strategy, pointed out that creating healthy food environments is one of the main goals of F2F, and while all stakeholders along the food supply chain need to be included, the food industry has a crucial role to play.

Stineke Oenema of UN Nutrition, a UN inter-agency coordination and collaboration mechanism for nutrition at the global and country levels, emphasised that food reformulation is a key step in order to achieve products with lower content of certain ingredients, such as sugar, fats and salt, in line with public health recommendations. Keeping in mind that it is never one single food that is healthy or not but rather the whole diet, the food industry can help by producing products that could be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Valentina Nolli, of German wholesaler METRO AG, pointed out that food and beverage products need to have certain characteristics to be accepted by consumers, most importantly taste. Reformulation allows to develop products with healthier profile while meeting consumer preferences. Research and innovation is key in order to find the right formulation which would be acceptable to the customer.

Emma Calvert of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, further stressed that industry cannot do it by themselves and while there are some frontrunners, engagement from policy-makers is needed to ensure a level playing field and encourage further action from industry.

What role can food ingredients such as low/no calorie sweeteners play in achieving healthy and sustainable diets?

Professor Anne Raben, of the University of Copenhagen, talked about the scientific evidence and ongoing research on low/no calorie sweeteners as sugar alternatives and their role in a less energy-dense diet. Research over the last 20 years has shown that low/no calorie sweeteners can be effective in reducing calorie intake and body weight when they are used to replace sugar in the diet, as shown in thorough systematic reviews. An ongoing research project funded by the EU Horizon 2020, the SWEET project, has brought together a consortium of 29 pan-European research, consumer and industry partners, and aims to study further the role of low/no calorie sweeteners in sugar reduction and in health and sustainability.

Asked about the role of food ingredients, such as low/no calorie sweeteners in a healthy diet, Stineke Oenema pointed out that reformulation is a key step in reducing the content of certain nutrients, such as sugar, in line with public health recommendations and within an overall healthy diet. “Food reformulation lowering levels of sugar for example in sugar-based beverages can help a lot.” Looking at the entire diet, dietary guidelines based on sound scientific evidence can be a helpful tool to inform not only consumers but also producers and thus help provide a level playing field for these key stakeholders and even for policy makers.

Emma Calvert added that many food manufacturers opt for low/no calorie sweeteners as a means to reformulate foods and beverages, while maintaining the sweetness level. BEUC would like to see a reduction not just in sugar but also in sweet taste.

Valentina Nolli pointed out that reformulation allows to develop products with healthier profile while maintaining taste. As a wholesaler, METRO works with producers to encourage such action and has also been on a journey to reduce sugar in their own products. However, offering products with reduced sugar by itself is not enough and needs to go hand in hand with educating consumers as well as retail customers.

What is the best way to build consumer trust in food and food ingredients? How can science help with this?

MEP Christine Schneider pointed to the importance of consumer education and the role of science in informing about food ingredients, such as eating too much sugar, and about healthy diets but always as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

On the question about using scientific advice in a way that is understandable to consumers, Professor Anne Raben said that in order for evidence-based information to have the best impact on consumers it needs to go through certain channels, importantly policy-makers, public health professionals and journalists. While science can provide answers, other stakeholders play a key role in conveying the science to the public. For example, we have to be careful about saying that consumers cannot have something sweet, as studies have shown that products with low/no calorie sweeteners can enable a more enjoyable diet with fewer calories and thus help people to lose body weight or maintain a healthier weight after weight loss, by adhering to a lower-calorie, lower-sugar diet in the long-term.

In the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic panellists also pointed to increased awareness about the importance of healthy and sustainable diets, especially as obesity and NCDs can lead to more severe outcomes from Covid-19. Food environments should facilitate healthier food choices and ultimately help achieve healthier diets for all.

 

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