The letter claims that without nutrient profiles, approved nutrition and health claims can be put on any food and non-alcoholic product – and as such can be found on approximately 30% of packaged products sold in the EU.
Many argue that nutrient profiles are needed to ensure ‘essentially unhealthy’ food and drink products that are high in sugar, far or salt cannot carry a health claim.
The basic premise of the nutrient profiles was that they should ensure health claims could only be made on healthy foods fitting a set profile in terms of salt, fat and sugar. This was written into the 2006 regulation and an initial deadline of 2009 was set for their creation. However, six years on and the profiles still haven't been set.
It is suggested that currently many inherently unhealthy products have attained a ‘health halo’ through the use of EFSA approved nutritional health claims, because despite the clear ruling from the European Commission that the use of claims on unhealthy foods would be banned, the lack of profiling criteria makes it impossible to police.
Indeed, 2016 research from Oxford University revealed that the average nutrient profile of foods carrying approved health claims is only marginally better than products without.
In fact, when products were put through an existing nutrient profiling scheme designed to regulate health claims in a similar way to that which the open letter calls for in Europe - the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion (FSANZ NPSC) – only 43% of European foods carrying health claims passed the check.
In Europe many stakeholders and policymakers, including those in Germany and Italy, have been publicly hostile to the idea of enforcing nutrient profiles – with some claiming that profiles are scientifically impossible to set.
Ten years late
The open letter notes that nutrient profiles were planned as part of the 2006 health claims regulations and should have been proposed by the European Commission in January 2009 – but as of May 2017 no proposal has been forthcoming.
Signed by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), the European Heart Network (EHN), Nestlé, Unilever, Danone, PepsiCo and The CocaCola Company, the it warns that the ‘unprecedented severity’ of the public health and nutrition challenges Europe faces means it can’t afford to maintain a situation where the EU legal framework “does not fully empower consumers to make the choices that are best for them.”
“Without the underpinning of nutrient profiles, the EU’s legal framework for nutrition and health claims made on foods (Regulation EC 1924/2006) has been incomplete for the past ten years,” warns the letter. “We believe that this situation is unsustainable and needs to be rectified as soon as possible.”
“We call on the Commission to take decisive action by making a proposal for EU-wide nutrient profiles for nutrition and health claims without further delay,” it says – adding that the EU needs to take action against obesity where it has the competences, and noting that it is impossible to ask food and drink firms to invest in innovation for health “and at the same time deny them the legal certainty and competitive level playing field that they need in order to make those investments.”
Commenting on the situation, EU nutrition and food law expert, and managing director of Hylobates Consulting, Luca Bucchini said the current situation regarding nutrient profiles is ‘untenable’ and that new discussion should now focus on how to achieve a good profiling system.
"While the concerns of stakeholders are valid, on balance I think there is no alternative to going ahead with profiles; the status quo is no longer acceptable," Bucchini told NutraIngredients.
He suggested that the discussion should move to set them in a way which really helps people eat better based on nutrition (both composition and dietary patterns) and consumer behaviour – and which does not distort the market place or negatively impact healthy dietary patterns such as the Mediterreanean diet.