Sunday, 21 February 2010

Food choice - a reading game

Fondant & Ice cream
Nutritious food; gourmet food; fast food; healthy food; baby food; convenience food; organic food... Food constitutes a human need tightly integrated to most sides of our social existence. In several places around the globe (but not everywhere), people have access to a considerable variety of foodstuffs, while new products pop up on a daily basis, often dynamically co-existing with traditional ones at nearby supermarket shelves.

There, consumers have the chance to choose. A number of factors are known to get in the middle, including biological, economic and social factors. Understanding the process of making a food choice, is certainly a hot desire for the corresponding sector these days. And it's not only the marketing pressure, as you may think. Surely, the food industry would love to make products that are (or can become) more appealing to consumers. But since food is closely associated with other things like health, it would be really useful if the choices people would go for, would also be "healthy" ones.

But there is a thin line somewhere there! Yes, food does affect the functions of the human body. Although research is still ongoing, there is clear evidence that food and the function of the nervous system, of the immune system and of the metabolism - to name a few of the systems/ processes of the human body - are related. But to what extent can food, on its own, prevent or cure diseases? If a food-health link is substantiated for a specific foodstuff, could food producers go ahead and inform the consumer on the health benefit of that food?

In Europe, nutrition and health claims are governed by Regulation (EC) 1924/2006. That Regulation places restrictions on what can be claimed of a food label and provides templates for a number of claims. Any health claim made on food labels must be true, not misleading and clearly understood by the average consumer; the claimed benefit should be achieved by reasonable consumption (specified by the producer); it must not imply that the by not consuming the food in question the consumer's health will be negatively affected; it should be accompanied with notes on the importance of a healthy, varied diet and a healthy lifestyle, and warn consumers on potential hazards associated with excessive consumption.

Regarding health claims, the Regulation discriminates across several categories:
  • Health claims that have to do with the general function of the organism
  • Health claims that refer to psychological or behavioural function
  • Health claims regarding slimming, satiety control, etc.
  • Health claims on the reduction of the risk of a disease or the health or development of children
The authorisation of each new claim depends on the category it falls under. However, in any case, claims examined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) need to be sufficiently substantiated by scientific evidence, strong enough to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between the nutrient or food that carries the claim and the claimed benefit. Don't be mistaken on that; that is no trivial task (e.g., check out the EFSA panel's recent opinion on an application for a health claim of a product containing cranberry extract, or for the function of phospholipids).

Clearly, the law offers - in a controllable way - opportunities for food producers to advertise to the consumers health benefits that foodstuffs may help towards. Critics do exist in both opposing camps: pro-health claims and contra-health claims. However, few can ignore the fact that consumers today can have access to increasingly more information on what they eat. All one needs to do, is take the time to read a label. Although - as some fear - we may be having increasingly longer food labels within the years to come!

No comments: