Health group calls for ‘usable’ information on food

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The European Heart Network (EHN) called on MEPs to back "fair presentation" of the nutritional content of food products and called on the industry to be "more modest with marketing" ahead of a European Parliament vote tomorrow (16 June) on an EU proposal to regulate food information to consumers.

The Commission's proposal for a Regulation on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers includes "a significant amount of health aspects" as far as nutrition labelling is concerned, said EHN director Susanne Løgstrup in an interview with EURACTIV.

If there is no clear nutrition labelling, consumers will be unable to understand the nutritional content of food products and avoid overconsumption of salt and saturated fats, which are both detrimental to cardiovascular health, she said.

The European Heart Network, backed by a number of other health and consumer organisations, supports making nutrition labelling of eight major nutrients mandatory on the back of packaging, with front-of-pack "sign-posting" of the amounts of fat, saturated fats, sugar, salt and energy. A "traffic light" system would also illustrate their high, low or medium content in each product.

For its part, the food industry favours a system of guideline daily amounts (GDAs), which estimates the average daily energy and nutrient requirements for human consumption and provides the percentages contained in a product.

But health and consumer organisations argue that people have a hard time understanding these and need clearer, at-a-glance information in the form of colour-coding. 

"We have to give people the information in a way that they understand it. It is no good giving them information if they can't use it. In that case we might just as well not give any," Løgstrup argued.

Substantiated claims key to public health

Ahead of tomorrow's first reading of the regulation in the Parliament, the EHN is also calling on MEPs to vote against amendments by the House's environment committee that seek to delete nutrient profiles from an existing 2007 EU Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods

The regulation requires foods to display appropriate nutrient profiles in order to prove claims such as "low fat", "helps your body resist stress" or "reduces cholesterol".

In a letter to EU lawmakers, Løgstrup writes that "without nutrient profiles, products that are high in fat, sugar or salt may be able to bear claims and this misleads people as to the true nature of the product".

Highlighting the "crushing burden" of chronic disease in Europe, she argues that it is vital that only products that are "overall healthy" should be allowed to bear claims.

Plea for 'fair presentation' of products

A product carrying a "low in fat" label, while it is high in salt or sugar, "is not a fair presentation of the product" because people associate low-fat with a healthy product, Løgstrup said.  

"The food industry needs to be more modest with marketing and claims and give people information they can understand. We want to make sure that people know what they are buying. And if industry does not want people to know what they are buying, then it is not being very honest," she underlined.

Public health cost, lost productivity

"Getting this regulation right is important for health and the economy," Løgstrup stressed, calling on MEPs to protect the interests of society rather than those of particular industrial sectors.

"Protection of industry interests comes with a cost to society. In terms of healthcare cost, people living with suboptimal health and an indirect cost in terms of lost productivity," she said.

According to the EHN, heart diseases are the biggest health burden in Europe as they account for more than two million deaths annually and are estimated to cost €192 billion a year across the EU.

Moreover, these figures do not take account of the loss of well-being, nor the cost of other chronic non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, obesity or certain cancers, she said.

To read the interview in full, please click here.

In 2008, the European Commission proposed new legislation on providing food information to consumers. The proposal combines existing rules on food labelling and nutritional information into one regulation.

The aim is to make food labels clearer and more relevant to consumers. The regulation includes specific requirements for displaying information on the front of packaging.

  • 16 March 2010: MEPs on European Parliament's food safety committee adopted legislative report on proposal.
  • 15-16 June 2010: First reading in Parliament plenary.

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