The so-called ‘nutrient profiles’ are used to classify foods and drinks based on their nutritional characteristics, with the aim of facilitating healthy consumption choices and reducing the incidence of obesity, overweight and diseases resulting from dietary imbalances. Such as type 2 diabetes, which is growing in epidemic proportions in the five continents, cardio-vascular pathologies and other even more serious Non Communicable Diseases. WHO, World Health Organization, is therefore developing specific guidelines on the adoption of these criteria (1) in its 193 member countries, to better fulfill its constitutional objective of promoting the achievement by all the peoples of the highest possible level of health, defined as ‘state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing’. But at the same time the European Union, whose populations are also affected by the growing spread of the mentioned diseases, takes a step back on this front. How is this possible? Let’s try to figure it out together.
Obesity has doubled worldwide, from 1980 to today. Two billion human beings out of seven are obese or overweight, and at least 2.8 million people die each year because of this. The number of overweight children under the age of 5, 43 million in 2013, has doubled since 1990 and it is estimated to double again over the next decade (2). The multiple causes can be summarized in the imbalance between energy intake through food and energy consumed through physical activities, and the excessive intake of sugar, saturated fats and salt. The WHO practical advice for a healthy diet is therefore focused on these crucial elements, besides the need to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables to a target daily minimum of 5 servings equal to ca. 400 grams (3).
Simple sugars, saturated fats and salt are the focus of the recommendations, where the free sugars must not exceed 10% of energy (ie, not more than 50 grams, approximately 12 teaspoons, for an average adult of normal weight, with a requirement of 2000 kcal / day) and should be ideally limited to 5%, that is half, to obtain additional health benefits. The fat should not exceed 30% of energy intake, giving preference to mono- and polyunsaturated fat (found in olive oils and seeds, e.g. sunflower and canola, as well as from nuts such as walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts). Without neglecting the health benefits related to some noble sources of saturated fat, such as milk and yogurt, butter and dairy products in general (4). The excess salt is in turn the primary suspect of homicides by means of heart attacks and cardiovascular diseases. WHO recommends a preventive measure, not more than 5 grams per day, but Europeans continue to take in about twice.
The nutrient profiles have the precise purpose of demarcating the products which, within each food category, result preferable from a nutritional standpoint. Without sacrificing the foods that go back to the histories of the people – e.g. in Italy PDO Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, extra virgin olive oil and many others – which may be excluded from that ‘criteriazation’ specifically because of their traditional nature of production and moderate consumption, which is part of historically balanced diets – as indeed suggested by the WHO itself.
The profile applications, for the protection of public health, are many:
– for the producers, the profiles can stimulate the reformulation of foods and drinks in line with the current nutrition needs (5) . By restricting the marketing aimed at children and teenagers, and limiting the use of nutrition and health benefits of products not compliant with the set parameters. But also, introducing appropriate fiscal measures such as ‘junk-food tax’ or ‘soda tax’, to be integrated with measures to contain prices of vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods (6)
– in the education and public information programs, to promote a healthy diet, the selection criteria may lead to synthetic information tools on product labels (such as ‘traffic lights’ in the UK, the ‘healthy’ logo in NL, the ‘keyhole system’ in DK, SW, NOR, FIN). To make the consumer aware of the need to minimize the consumption of products whose nutritional characteristics result excessive, if not extreme. In order to contain the c.d. ‘indulgence’ and to avoid unnecessary illnesses.
The World Health Organization is working with international experts to review the various schemes used for more than two decades by governments, NGOs, industries and ‘retailers’, with the precise purpose of sharing a useful model to impact positively on the health of populations on the planet, against the risk of global malnutrition which appears otherwise unsolvable. In ‘advanced’ countries from an economic standpoint – where even the serious social inequalities are expressed in terms of ‘food divide’ and ‘health divide’ – as well as in Developing Countries (7).
But European policies on the subject of nutrition security, already failed (8), have completely stalled. No concrete measure has been taken to date to address the deadly combination of excess sugar, fat and salt, to which dangerous health effects are attributed but also phenomena of dependency not dissimilar to those caused by drugs (9). The nutrient profiles were at the time introduced with the express purpose of preventing the use of nutrition & health claims of unbalanced foods, but the European Commission has never dared to counter the lobbies of producers of junk food and has failed at the task of defining the same by 2009, as it should have (10). Despite that the European Food Safety Authority had actually published, in February 2008, the scientific opinion intended for this purpose (11).
The European Parliament has inflicted the final blow to the nutrient profiles on March 26, 2015, with a decision by a large majority of its Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) for the elimination of their own theory. With an excuse that does not help to eliminate the suspicions about the effectiveness of the ‘junk-food’ corporations’ lobbies: the definition of nutrient profiles by the European Commission would be late today, if not useless and detrimental for those foods that are characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, as well as for agricultural and food products protected by appropriate specifications (as DOP and IGP). Ignoring completely the reassurances of WHO as well as the ‘claims’ Regulation, on the safeguarding of traditional products.
‘Profit over Public Policies’?
http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/270716/Nutrient-Profile-Model.pdf?ua=1. First comments on http://www.sicurezzaalimentare.it/nutrizione/Pagine/OMSprepara“profilinutrizionali”masalviDOP-prestolimitiapubblicitàingannevoleancheinEuropa.aspx
(2) Asma Lateef, direttore del ‘Bread forthe World Institute’, on http://www.unscn.org/files/Publications/SCN_News/SCNNEWS41_web_low_res.pdf
(3) WHO – World Health Organization, ‘Practical advice on how to maintain a healthy diet’, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs394/en
(5) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/obesita-malattie-correlate-industria-deve-riformulare-prodotti-rivedere-pubblicita-denuncia-direttrice-generale-oms.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/se-aumenta-il-prezzo-delle-bibite-cala-lobesit.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/prezzi-frutta-verdura-cibo-sano-sudafrica-fast-food-rand.html
(7) http://www.oecd.org/social/income-distribution-database.htm, http://wer.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/WEA-WER-4-Woodward.pdf, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/messico-soft-drink-epidemia-diabete.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/coca-cola-e-pepsico-junk-food-venezuela.html
(8) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/in-europa-sovrappeso-e-obesita-sono-raddoppiati-in-20-anni.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/obesita-europa-in-crescita-allarmante-regno-unito.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/who-cibi-dannosi-salute-consumatori-interessi-industria-alimentare.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/obesita-sovrappeso-ictus-epidemia.html
(10) CE 1924/06 regulation, article 4