Paris and Brussels debate yoghurt and margarine

Everyone loves margarine. Stockholm advert, 2005. [Alexander Svensson/Flickr]

On the eve of the European Council (27 June), yet another dispute has emerged between the EU and France. The French national food safety agency found nothing to prove that food containing high levels of phytosterol prevents heart disease, which contradicts European food safety regulation. EURACTIV France reports.

Maybe it will not be mentioned at the European Council, but France’s national food safety agency (ANSES) claims that yoghurt and margarine with added phytosterols may have no effect on reducing the risks of heart disease. The French experts say that it is impossible to determine “the effect of phytosterols on preventing cardiovascular risks.”

In a notice published on 25 June, ANSES stated that “phytosterols contribute to reducing cholesterol in blood,” but that “their value in heart disease prevention has not been proven.”

The agency warns pregnant or breastfeeding women and children not to consume these products, even though according to their statistics 12.5% of consumers are children.

Questioning their efficiency

As well as undermining the relation between lower blood cholesterol levels and lower risks of heart disease, ANSES also highlights the inefficiency of products with added phytosterol. “In 30% of consumers, consuming food with added phytosterols does not reduce LDL cholesterol levels (the bad cholesterol).”

ANSES’s findings come after a referral by France’s consumer association UFC-Que Choisir. The association has criticised producers for years over false marketing on their products’ nutritional benefits.

“Food products like ‘PROACTIV’ or ‘FRUIT D’OR’ margarine and special milk-based products like ‘DANACOL’ by DANONE are marketed on the basis that phytosterol reduces blood cholesterol levels,” said the consumer association.

European re-evaluation

Following ANSES’s publication, the UFC-Que Choisir called on “national and European authorities to re-examine the authorisation to market these products.”

The introduction to the market of products with added phytosterol comes under the framework of the European novel foods and food ingredients procedure.

“There is a weakness in the European procedure” said Olivier Andrault, member of the UFC Que-Choisir. “The European authorities have a lot less freedom than their French counterparts,” he added.

Unlike the French agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) cannot issue own-opinion reports or widen the scope of its investigations during their decision-making process. This means the EFSA can only delve into the safety aspect of food products, and not their marketing suitability.

“The French agency’s opinion is at odds with the European agency,” said Olivier Andrault.

EU regulation authorises the labelling of products containing added phytosterols. Producers are allowed to claim that phytosterols reduce blood cholesterol levels and that lower blood cholesterol levels reduce the risk of heart disease. The recent findings by the French agency calls regulation into question.

In order to find some harmony, both agencies will have to find for common ground as is outlined in the European rules.

Phytosterols are natural compounds found in plants. Thanks to their cholesterol-like shape, they can reduce blood cholesterol levels by preventing its intestinal absorption. 

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