26th Jan 2021

European food labelling to help in fight against fat

Research has shown that eating healthily with a well balanced diet can prevent most food-related diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

There are plenty of products on the supermarket shelves which promise to do just so, but can they be relied on? A new and tougher EU law on nutrition claims seeks to make food labels more trustworthy.

Read and decide

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"A lot of products claim to be healthy and as a consumer you have no way of knowing whether the claim is right or not," says Sue Davies from the consumer group 'Which?'

At the moment, food labels often carry nutrition or health claims such as saying that a product is "low fat" or that it "reduces cholesterol". But many of the claims are misleading, say consumer groups, as a product which is low in fat is also sometimes high in sugar, which slows the body's process of burning fat.

And labels do matter to consumers.

What's in a label?

A recent survey by the European consumer group, BEUC, showed that Europeans want to eat a healthy diet and mainly rely on marketing claims when choosing what food to buy.

Out of the 3000 consumers asked across the EU, 59 percent of them said that claims always or often caught their attention and that they read them while over half of the persons asked agreed that a claim would lead them to buy a product.

Products are often labelled with words such as "natural", "wholesome" or "traditional" making them sound healthy but which do not really mean all that much.

Having the word "organic" printed on a label appeals to the conscience of consumers because it means it was grown or raised without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or hormones. But again that does not necessarily mean that it is healthy.

The name 'Organic crisps' for example might have a greater appeal to consumers, but when it comes to healthiness, crisps made by an organic food company have around the same amount of calories for the same serving size as any other bag of crisps.

Similarly, a label that says "80% fat free" actually means that 20 percent of the product is fat, which is way above a generally recognised 3 percent allowed for a 'low fat' claim.

The EU's labelling law

In July 2003, the European Commission took action to regulate how products are labelled unleashing one of the strongest lobbying bouts Brussels has ever seen.

The bitterest part of the debate centred around "article 4" on nutrient profiles aimed at preventing the positive promotion of products which are high in sugar, salt and/or fat.

After member states unanimously adopted the proposal in December 2005, the much divided European Parliament voted by a small majority against the use of nutrition profiles and against the authorisation requirements for health claims.

A deal was reached in the eleventh hour after intense behind-the-scene talks between representatives from the member states, the parliament and the commission.

In the end the parliament agreed to leave in "article 4" and the law was endorsed by a majority of the MEPs on 16 May 2006.

Under the new law, set to be adopted by member states later this year, all nutrition claims have to be checked by the European Food Security Agency (EFSA) before they can be put on a label and be used in marketing, while health claims will be subjected to strict requirements.

The law will in general prevent foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt from carrying health claims.

No food products will be banned by the new EU law, but manufacturers unable to justify claims will have to change the labelling of their products.

Meanwhile, trademarks which can be interpreted as a health or nutrition claim will not be allowed.

Already existing brand names, such as "weight watchers" and "slim fast", might have to be phased out and removed from the market over a 15 year period from the start of the law entering into force - unless it can prove that it meets the new requirements.

Cool reception

The European employers' group for small and medium sized companies, UEAPME, gave a cool welcome to the new law arguing it would not be beneficial to consumers.

"European SME producers ... will now have to deal with additional registration procedures ... if they wish to inform consumers on the nutritional benefits of their foodstuffs," said the group's advisor on food issues, Ludger Fischer.

"This will increase the bureaucratic burden, limit the number of possible claims and ultimately reduce the amount of information available for the consumer," he stated.

German conservative MEP Renate Sommer, who had been fighting against the law for the last three years, said the final compromise was "just as bad as the original draft of the commission."

She said her criticism of the law was due to small businesses losing money because of EU over-regulation and that the bloc could not tell people how to live their lives. "Food advertisers are obviously not responsible for the fact that people are becoming fatter."

Ms Davies of the 'Which?' consumer group criticised the food industry's lobbying against the law.

"You can certainly not let whether nutritional claims are true or not be up to the consumer," she said, arguing that the consumer is not going to go and do research or background reading when food shopping for healthier products.

"This is a clear case of where consumers needed a legal framework," said Ms Davies adding that labels are important to help consumers avoid obesity and diet related diseases "but only if the claims are actually true."

"There is a strong link between what we eat and what kills us," she said.

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