EU Nutrient Profiles: Back on the Table?

October 9, 2012

Are EU nutrient profiles back on the agenda, under the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation?

Are EU nutrient profiles back on the agenda, under the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation?

Nutrition and health claims appeal to consumers and food marketers alike. But, practically speaking, how does a marketer know when a food is eligible to bear a nutrition claim like, for instance, “low in fat/sugar/salt”? Or, conversely, how can a marketer determine which foods are too high in fat/sugar/salt to bear a health claim at all?

First, the marketer must determine the nutritional composition of a food. Knowing which nutrients and other substances are in a food, and also their levels in the food, helps determine which nutrition and health claims can ultimately be used.

In the European Union, however, there may be, in the near future, an additional step to consider-that of nutrient profiling.

 

Initial Proposal

In the EU, the issue of nutrient profiling came onto the agenda in 2006 when the then–newly established EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) required that the European Commission create a nutrient profiling system that would help restrict unhealthy products from making nutrition and health claims.

The system was expected to set limits for the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat in specific categories of foods (e.g., cereals, confectionery), which, if exceeded, barred a product from making any nutrition or health claims on any of its ingredients.

Following this requirement put forth by NHCR, a first attempt was made to finalize a nutrient profiling system in 2009; however, that attempt failed. When first draft proposals for a system were presented for discussion in 2008 and 2009, EU member state experts, the European Parliament, and some divisions within the European Commission expressed serious concerns. A primary criticism was the draft proposal’s restrictive approach-for example, very strict thresholds-which some believed would dissuade innovation and jeopardize the sustainability and development of a range of food categories in Europe. Moreover, some said the system proposed and agreed on could ultimately be used as a reference by regulators to apply restrictions on what are determined to be “bad foods” in a number of other areas, such as advertising and taxation.

The discussions became increasingly political. In 2010, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) took the opportunity, during discussions on a different food labeling regulation, to propose a vote that would delete the NHCR’s provision to create nutrient profiles. According to the MEPs at the time, the concept of a nutrient profiling system was scientifically flawed as it would establish an arbitrary division of good and bad foods, without taking into account the balance of food in the entire diet. In the end, the vote to delete nutrient profiling from the NHCR failed, but by an equal split-309 in favor and 309 against-highlighting the growing concern within the European Parliament over the issue of a nutrient profiling system.

 

Trying Again

Establishing a nutrient profiling system for foods has remained a “back burner” project in the EU ever since the failed attempt to finalize a system back in 2009. Now, however, the topic has resurfaced in the wake of May’s publication of the new EU list of permitted Article 13 health claims in the Official Journal of the European Union. The European Commission is consulting internally to see if there is any political will to develop the profiles, because if it does develop a proposal, this would later need to be approved by other Commission “services,” or divisions. Getting approval by these “services” could prove challenging, however, considering that during the first attempt back in 2009 to get a proposal approved, the four divisions consulted within the Commission voiced concerns about the draft proposal.

If, however, the draft does get through this stage, the next challenge will be getting the approval of all 27 EU member states. And, finally, the proposal will have to successfully pass through the European Parliament’s scrutiny procedure, at which stage it can either be accepted or blocked from moving forward. This, however, may also not be an easy feat, given the concerns the European Parliament has voiced in the past over nutrient profiles and its aforementioned near-successful vote to delete the provision for nutrient profiles from the NHCR.

 

More in 2013

The issue of nutrient profiles will no doubt be a hot discussion point in 2013. The Commission has indicated that it intends to do an impact assessment, although it hasn’t elaborated on timing. If a new proposal is put on the table, will it be able to overcome the criticisms waged at the previous versions, and offer scientifically sound solutions? It will be interesting to see whether it ignites the same level of controversy as before, or whether it will take the EU a step closer towards the development of a nutrient profiling system that meets both the scientific requirements of the regulation and the political agendas of the powers that be.