EU nutrition debate enters the next round

EU nutrition debate enters the next round

A recent survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found that Europeans want the EU to do more to help them make healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices.

The research has raised questions about families’ access to, and ability to afford, healthy and sustainable food options amid a deepening inflation crisis on the continent. With the cost of food skyrocketing more than 16 percent, three out of four Europeans think their governments should make environmentally friendly food cheaper, and incentivise the consumption of local products. A further four in five want new rules and financial support put in place to help consumers make better choices.

These findings cut to the core of the European Commission’s front of pack (FOP) label debate, which has gained steam in recent weeks after it became apparent that the European Commission is no longer backing the Nutri-Score system. In fact, the controversial algorithm has been under intense fire for years for its arbitrary scoring and misleading information, and has even been banned from stores in Italy and Romania.

The France-backed Nutri-Score label has long claimed to improve dietary health and tackle obesity by providing consumers with nutritional value information based on a specially developed algorithm. The label scores food products according to their content of fibres, proteins, saturated fats and sugars, using an A-to-E, green-to-red sliding scale system based on a 100ml/g serving.

In the Nutri-Score quagmire

The problem with this, say Nutri-Score’s many detractors, is that the algorithm unfairly penalises fatty and salty foods such as those included in the Mediterranean diet. Moreover, by failing to take artificial sweeteners and other additives into account, the label has a glaring blindspot for processed food.

As a matter of fact, the controversies surrounding Nutri-Score’s algorithm could well be devastating for consumers that need to control their diet, such as diabetics and those with other noncommunicable diseases. The FOP’s impact on consumer choices is thus significant for public health, especially at a time when the Covid pandemic with its lockdowns, reduced activity, stress and comfort eating has led to a rapid increase in obesity rates. Given that EU states have “a policy, strategy, or action plan for reducing overweight and obesity” in place, Nutri-Score’s adverse effects are not encouraging.

This realisation has also reached the European institutions. During a roundtable discussion on nutritional labelling for food organized by the Permanent Representation of Italy to the EU in the European Parliament, the interim director of the EU Commission’s DG for Health and Consumers, Roser Domenech Amado, remarked that Nutri-Score is “only one of a few FOP label systems under consideration” and the Commission is aware that “there’s no agreement on which rules” should govern a harmonised a FOP label across the bloc.

These comments came on top of criticism from earlier in October, when representatives from across the nutrition science, manufacturing and consumer products industries met to discuss the European Commission’s FOP labelling reform, slamming Nutri-Score’s algorithm as “too simple” and lagging behind modern science. Simplified systems like these, they said, fail to help those who suffer from diseases linked to sodium, sugar, saturated fats or sugars.

Beyond the Brussels policy bubble

Instead, many experts urged for personalised nutrition approaches, arguing that a more individualised approach holds the key to helping consumers make informed choices based on their medical needs. In practice, this means consumers’ smart watches can be linked to their fridge, metabolism and the supermarket at once, and personalise their diets according to their needs.

“[Nutri-Score is] a one-size-fits all scheme… where an elite group of scientists approve an algorithm that claims to be perfect and applicable to everyone,” explained Pietro Paganini, founder of think tank Competere, “science is moving in the direction of personalised diets,” whereas Nutri-Score is thereby lacking behind the times and is “in the past.”

The need for a better, more balanced and overall more informative FOP system is intrinsically tied to broader public health goals for all Europeans. The issue is particularly urgent in the context of the pandemic, which has contributed to increased obesity and other health issues across the bloc, only adding to a public health crisis across Europe that has food at its centre. Givent hat the EU has recently decided to postpone the final decision on the form which a EU-wide FOP label will take until the second quarter of 2023, there is still time to find the best solution for both public health and sustainability.

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