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How can the EU make healthy food choices easier?

Published at, September 28, 2016

How effective are EU initiatives that try to make consumers make healthier food choices? Katia Merten-Lentz, of international law firm Keller and Heckman, and Dr Nathalie Henin, scientific and regulatory advisor at Keller & Heckman, look at the progress made so far.

In June this year, the EU Council issued conclusions on food improvement asking Member States to develop national plans to make the healthy choice easier for consumers by 2020 through an increased availability of food with less salt, saturated fats, added sugars and energy value as well as reduced portion sizes.

These Council conclusions follow a long list of initiatives taken at EU level to reformulate food products aimed at reducing obesity and other non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Indeed, since the publication of the Commission’s white paper on a strategy for Europe on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues in 2007, various Council conclusions, actions plans and national initiatives have been taken tackling the high consumption of certain nutrients, the excess of calorie intake and the limited physical activity, whilst addressing the differences across the Member States.

Are such initiatives sufficient to solve the issues of poor nutrition and the imbalance between calorie intake and physical activity? Despite all the initiatives already taken during the last decade, obesity and its health-related consequences including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes are still rising in Europe, putting considerable pressure on health care costs.

This situation is certainly reflecting the complexity and multifactorial causes of obesity as well as people behaviour towards food and nutrition. The food industry has already taken many steps to offer new products with better nutrient profiles. However, eventually, food choice remains with the consumer.

It is crucial to help consumers to make better choices and change their food behaviours. Besides a healthier food offer, better education and information on nutrition, on how to read labels and on obesity , could play a role. Education on food should start at an early age, as the taste and the food behaviour children develop stays with them to adulthood.

Another important element is the price and easy access of foods. It is known that obesity is more prevalent in people with fewer resources. People from the lower socio-economic groups buy cheaper and less healthy foods and beverages than those in higher socio-economic groups who purchase more fruits and vegetables.

Some Member States have already applied taxation against certain types of food, but their effectiveness depends on their design. If tax rates are low and food products cheap, the impact will be small

Food taxation should not be the only action taken to fight against the rise of obesity. The American Heart Association has recently reported on a study concluding that lowering the prices of fruit and vegetables may be more effective in reducing heart disease than mass media campaigns over 15 years .

In the EU, nutrition and health claims are highly regulated, but the characteristics of the foods that may carry them are not. The report on the European Commission-funded research project CLYMBOL revealed that “foods carrying health-related claims have marginally better nutrition profiles than those that do not carry claims. It is unclear whether these relatively small differences have significant impacts on health”. 

The CLYMBOL study also revealed that most nutrition claims were made on vitamins (35 %) and only 4 % concerned sodium/salt, whilst it is agreed that a reduction of salt intake up to 5 grams per day would substantially reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease and mortality.

In terms of body functions or effects, 11 % of the health claims concerned the mental functions (energy, sleep, cognition) and 13 % the digestive functions, whilst only 5.4% of the health claims concerned heart or blood vessels functions. 

In addition, with the absence of nutrient profiles, food products can bear any authorised claims if they meet their conditions of use, whatever the food nutrient composition. It seems thus that the current nutrition and health claims made on foods are not always of health relevance. Consequently, the efficacy of the new Council conclusions on food improvement is highly questionable, considering the lack of results of the previous initiatives on overweight and obesity.

The position of the European Commission regarding the regulation of the nutrition and health claims appears much more sensitive and concrete. From this viewpoint, it is very interesting to see what the European Commission is going to do following its announcement to revise the nutrition and health claims regulation.

It is to be hoped that the European Commission takes into account that other actions influencing consumers’ choice and education are also needed, rather than merely creating legal constraints on food operators.