Food information for consumers


This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.

The EU is considering strict new food labelling rules to help consumers make healthy choices and tackle obesity, which has become a serious public health concern.

Food labelling and advertising has become a topical issue in the fight against obesity (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

A 1990 EU Directive on Nutrition Labelling for Foodstuffs lays down harmonised rules on the presentation and content of nutritional information for pre-packed foods. But the inclusion of nutrition information is voluntary unless a nutrition-related claim is made on the package.

Another EU Directive on the Labelling, Presentation and Advertising of Foodstuffs is the main EU directive on food labelling. It ensures that the consumer gets all the essential information regarding the composition of a product, its manufacturer, the method of storage and preparation. 

Following its 2000 White Paper on Food Safety, the Commission initiated a reform of labelling rules. After an evaluation of existing legislation and a public stakeholder consultation on the issue (see summary of results and individual responses), a revision of EU food labelling rules was announced in a 2007 White Paper on a Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-related Health Issues.

In January 2008, the Commission finally adopted proposals on the 'revision' of current food labelling rules. The proposed regulation is intended to repeal the current two directives on food labelling.

The EU executive suggests that food labels should be made clearer and more relevant to consumers, and sets out specific requirements for displaying information on the front of packaging. One of the strategic goals of the review is to provide consumers with the necessary information to enable them to make healthy choices.

A consensus has emerged between policymakers and consumer groups that self-regulation is not an effective means of ensuring that accurate nutritional information is included on all food packaging.

While major food manufacturers are considered to have made considerable investments in improving nutritional information, the push for legislation arose as a result of patchy implementation of industry guidelines.

A consensus has emerged between policymakers and consumer groups that self-regulation is not an effective means of ensuring that accurate nutritional information is included on all food packaging.

While major food manufacturers are considered to have made considerable investments in improving nutritional information, the push for legislation arose as a result of patchy implementation of industry guidelines.

In 2008, the European Commission tabled proposals for a Regulation on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers, combining existing EU rules on food labelling and nutritional information into one new regulation.

The Commission's proposal suggests introducing:

  • Mandatory front-of-pack labelling for a range of nutrients: energy, total fat, saturated fats, carbohydrates (with specific reference to sugars) and salt expressed as amounts per 100g, per 100 ml or per portion;
  • a minimum font size of 3mm for lettering on labels and a clear contrast between print and the background to boost readability.

The labelling requirements concern processed food and drink products only and exclude non-processed food such as meat and vegetables. Alcoholic drinks such as wine, beer and spirits are also currently excluded from the proposal, except mixed products like so-called 'alcopops'.

However, alcohol could be included in the directive after five years of further consultation once the regulation has entered into force - forcing the alcohol industry to reveal the calorie content of its products.

As the proposal is being debated, stakeholders' views vary widely as to what kind of information should be provided to consumers, where it should be displayed on the pack and how big the letters should be. 

What information is necessary and how should it be presented?

Consumer organisations are demanding front-of-pack data on salt, sugar, total fat and saturated fat. But food industry groups suggest requiring companies to print information on calorie content only on the front of packaging, allowing manufacturers to decide on any additional information that could be provided.

The European Parliament's health and environment committee (ENVI) wants proteins, fibre and transfats to be added to a mandatory list of nutrients to be included on the front of packaging, whereas the European Commission suggests that their inclusion should only be voluntary.  

As well as backing mandatory front-of-pack labelling for all nutrients, MEPs want specific rules guaranteeing the visibility of energy content (calories) and are asking for products containing nano-materials to be clearly labelled too.

Parliamentarians also recommend replacing the Commission's 3mm font size requirement with an obligation to provide legible nutritional information instead. Their position is position backed by the food industry.

Traffic lights vs. Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs)

One of the most controversial issues in the food labelling proposal is the option for member states to require the food industry to display a visual representative element, such as a traffic light system, alongside the nutritional information table. In such a system, a red light would be displayed on products high in fat, sugar or salt, for example.

The debate pits consumer and health NGOs campaigning for the introduction of a traffic light system against the food industry, which favours a system of guideline daily amounts (GDAs). GDAs estimate the average daily energy requirements for men and women aged between 19-50 of normal weight and fitness. There are currently no GDAs for children.

Efforts to introduce GDAs on food packaging have sometimes been undone by companies intent on using the labelling system to their commercial advantage. Meanwhile, businesses argue that colour coding is far too simplistic and could lead to "demonisation" of some foodstuffs, which include nutrients needed in a balanced diet.

Per portion vs. per 100g

Another issue for debate is whether nutritional content should be presented per portion or per 100g. For food like yoghurt or multi-packs of chocolate bars, there is a consensus that 'per portion' information is practical.

The issue is not so clear when dealing with packets of biscuits or bottles of soft drinks, as here it is difficult to define what constitutes an average portion. In such cases, some argue that displaying nutritional information per 100g or 100ml would make it easier for consumers to compare competing products.

In practice, companies have often shied away from this, instead preferring to give nutritional content 'per portion' or 'per serving', based on estimates of what their customers typically eat.

Member states, meanwhile, warn that the term 'per portion' cannot be the only expression used, and would only be acceptable alongside information per 100g or per 100ml.

Lawmakers on the European Parliament's committee on environment, public health and food safety (ENVI) agree with the Commission that information on energy and nutrients should be offered per 100g or per 100ml, and possibly also per portion. They also favour making comparisons with the reference intake (GDAs) for energy and certain nutrients, but want to make clear that "the personal daily requirement of [each] consumer may differ".


While EU member states generally accept the idea of mandatory nutrition labels, some delegations are still concerned about the increased administrative burden that regulation might represent for business, especially SMEs.

SME organisations in particular are claiming that it would be impossible to require unpacked foods from bakeries, salad bars or catering services to be labelled.

Nutrient profiles and health claims

EU lawmakers voted to delete a provision from a 2007 EU Regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods requiring foods to display appropriate nutrient profiles in order to prove claims such as 'low fat', 'helps your body resist stress' or 'reduces cholesterol'.

They argue that future regulation will result in comprehensive food information for consumers and that no restrictions on claims are necessary.

However, others argue that if deleted, claims could be made regarding foodstuffs which are low in fat but high in sugar and salt content.

Country of origin

MEPs also want the label to mention the country of origin of meat, poultry, dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables and other single-ingredient products. The same would apply to meat, poultry and fish when used as an ingredient in processed food.

While consumer organisations welcome this initiative, food industry actors claim that such obligations would create an overly burdensome process of changing labelling for each production series, as the ingredients are not always sourced from the same places.

"Food labels can have a huge influence on consumers' purchasing decisions," said former Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, presenting the EU executive's proposal in January 2008. "Confusing, overloaded or misleading labels can be more of a hindrance than a help to the consumer [...] Today's proposal aims to ensure that food labels carry the essential information in a clear and legible way so that EU citizens are empowered to make balanced dietary choices," he added.

More recently, commenting on industry proposals to require companies only to print information on calorie content on the front of packaging, and allow manufacturers to decide whether to include additional information, Robert Madelin, a former director-general of the European Commission's health and consumer affairs department, said that such an approach would represent "a gross distortion" of nutritional information and could breed mistrust between food companies and the public.

Madelin also said that providing nutritional information according to portion size could leave too much scope for variation. He said suspicion is rife that some companies are giving portion data based on what people should consume rather than the amount they actually consume.

He challenged the industry to "open its books" and share internal research into consumption habits in order to counter the perception that companies are performing a "three-card trick" by using idealistic portion sizes rather than realistic portions.

The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) fears that labelling rules might bring an information overload, leading to widespread consumer confusion. It is therefore seeking support for existing industry efforts and its voluntary Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) scheme.

It believes that mandatory nutrition labelling should comprise a front-of-pack GDA icon for energy, with the energy value expressed as an absolute amount per portion and its percentage of the GDA. According to the CIAA, mandatory back-of-pack labelling should include eight major nutrients (energy, protein, carbohydrates, sugars, fat, saturated fat, fibre and sodium) expressed per 100g/100ml.

The CIAA also wants food in packaging with a printable surface of less than 100cm² to be excluded from the labelling obligations. It is calling for the same exemptions to apply to foods with a negligible amount of energy per portion or in a quantity of less than 5g/ml, as well as items with a seasonal, luxury, gift or fancy nature, including assortments.

Regarding the proposed provisions on labelling of origin, the CIAA stresses that "there is no need for further legal requirements since law already requires origin labelling when the absence of such provisions may mislead the consumer as to the true origin of the product".

Christiaan Prins, EU public affairs manager at Unilever, a major global food manufacturer, noted that obligations on country-of-origin labelling would be very complicated for certain products, as their origin can vary.

"All products used in the EU already need to fulfill EU food safety and traceability requirements and we know where the ingredients in our products come from. But we find that the package represents a limited way of informing consumers on this. It would force us to change our labels every time we switch the origin of our ingredients. This would generate more packaging waste. It is more sustainable to provide this type of information through free consumer carelines," Prins said.

As for colour coding, Prins said that individual food products should not be looked at in isolation, but rather as part of an overall diet. "If people were only to consume 'green' products, they would not have a balanced diet," he remarked.

Commenting on proposals by the European Parliament's environment committee to delete nutrient profiles, Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of UK consumer organisation Which?, said that "ditching nutrient profiles is like throwing the baby out with the bath water as it paves the way for all manner of unhealthy foods to claim to have health benefits".

According to Which?, foods such as doughnuts, chocolate milkshakes and pork sausages could all claim to be healthy under the existing draft proposal.

The European Heart Network (EHN), the European consumers' organisation (BEUC) and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) believe that multiple colour coding [so-called 'traffic light' labelling] should be mandatory on the front of packaging, with red, yellow (amber) and green indicating high, medium and low levels of fats, saturated fats, sugar and salt per 100g/100ml. A more comprehensive label, where eight nutrients would be listed according to their levels, should be displayed on the back of packaging.

"% GDAs on their own do not allow a quick understanding of whether the nutrient is present at a low, medium or high level. Research shows that consumers like and understand colour coding whereas % GDAs are not as easily understood," they argue.

The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) argues that debates about "font sizes, colour contrast, traffic lights and other detailed things actually obfuscates and penumbrates the more important issue of labelling all loose foods," pointing out that "unpacked food is included in the scope of the regulation".

UEAPME claims that it is "absurd" for the EU to insist that mixed salads, prepared foods, breads, cakes, pastry mixes, ice cream and catering meals must be furnished with full ingredient labelling and provided with nutritional profiles.

"The EU Commission itself has recognised this and proposed alternatives. Each of the 27 EU member states could indeed adopt an appropriate exception for non-packaged foods," it added.

It warns that it the proposal is not changed, "the European small food trades - bakers, confectioners, butchers, ice cream producers, restaurants - can look forward to lean times". It also argues that the diversity of the food supply, a cultural and health factor, is at stake if small food enterprises can only produce standardised food.

  • 30 May 2007: Commission White Paper on Obesity.
  • 30 Jan. 2008: Commission adopts proposal for a regulation on food labelling (EURACTIV 31/01/08).
  • 7 Nov. 2008: Parliament's environment, health and food safety (ENVI) committee issues report by MEP Renate Sommer. However, the first draft was withdrawn and the first reading of the dossier began at beginning of new legislative term (2009).
  • 11 Nov. 2009: New draft report presented by MEP Renate Sommer.
  • 14 December 2009: Council takes note of the EU presidency's progress report.
  • 16 March 2010: ENVI committee adopts a draft report (EURACTIV 17/03/10).
  • 16 June 2010: First reading vote in European Parliament (EURACTIV 17/06/10).
  • 6 Dec. 2010: Council reached political agreement on the dossier (read the agreement).
  • 19 April 2011: 2nd reading report adopted in Parliament's ENVI committee.
  • 5 July 2011: 2nd reading plenary vote scheduled.

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