On 12th April 2016 the European Parliament in plenary session voted in favor of the abolition of the so called nutrient profiles, introduced, in the past, into the so called “Regulation claims”.(1) The news is today celebrated with great clamor by the representatives of the food chain, in the widespread confusion over a rule that has never been understood, nor even implemented. Let’s try to shed light on the regulatory context.
The EC Regulation 1924/06, which introduced common rules regarding the indications on nutrition and health to be admitted in the information trade of food products, had delegated the European Commission to develop by the 19th January 2009 nutritional characteristics(2) to which the various categories of foods must meet, to be able to associate health benefits with their consumption. The Brussels executive should have, therefore, defined some simple criteria – such as the energy value and / or the maximum levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium – in order to exclude that the so called “comfort foods” could be advertised with “marketing” levers guided by the physical wellbeing.
The European Food Safety Authority published a scientific report, on 26th February 2008, about the different hypothesis of classification of food products within each category and sub-category of products, based on the experiences from the five continents. The European Commission, however, in almost ten years since the publication of the “claims regulation” in the Official Gazette, has never fulfilled its obligations in this regard.
The controversies against the nutrient profiles, mostly late with respect to the regulative text, have sheltered behind the concept of “junk-food”, to which all major industrial groups claim to subtract their productions. In accordance with their “lobby” no food can be classified as “junk food”, in spite of the scientific literature on the subject, and in any case it should not be discriminated against any other. Under the “leitmotif” according to which the balance of a diet must be assessed as a whole without looking at its individual components.
On closer inspection, however, the “nutrient profiles” provided by the “Nutrition & Health Claims Regulation” (NHC) would never have led to mark the labels of products not fulfilling the established criteria.(3) Their function in the negative was only to prevent the use of health claims on certain foods whose excessive consumption is not compatible with the guidelines for good nutrition statistics at a national and European level. As part of an overall strategy, which is still ineffective, to reverse the dangerous trend of increasing obesity, overweight and correlated diseases(4).
Foods that belong to the traditions of consumption, such as Parmigiano Reggiano or extra virgin olive oil, have never run any risk of penalization,(5) just because the definition of the criteria “the role and importance of food (or categories of foods) in the diet of the population”(6) should have been taken into account and therefore predict specific exemptions. “Cui bono”, then, the blotting out of the Assembly in Strasbourg? Some hints can be found in the recent report by the German NGO FoodWatch, which assessed the nutritional (un)suitability(7) of several dozens of famous products, in the ranks of “global brands” advertised as healthy. Just add some vitamin synthesis to any cluster of little nutritional value but with a high added value, and that’s it. It is perhaps precisely this, however, the most serious deficiency of the legislation application in question. Too much emphasis to the wonders of vitamins and minerals, little attention to the natural virtues of the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet.
(1) Council Regulation (EC) No. 1924/06
(2) Cited Regulation, Article 4
(3) Unlike the general patterns of nutritional summary information for years adopted in some European countries, such as the the British ‘traffic-lights’ and the Scandinavian ‘keyhole system’
(4) Cfr. http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/libro-michael-moss-obesita-grassi-zucchero-sale.html
(5) As proof of this, we quote the health claims authorized by reg. (EU) No. 432/12 on extra-virgin olive oil, in relation to the polyphenols present therein
(6) Regulation (EC) n. 1924/06, Art. 4
(7) Foodwatch verified the compatibility of the products tested with nutrient profiles in Europe by the World Health Organization, ‘WHO-Europe’