Saturday, 18 June 2011

Health and nutrition: Pyramids, plates and food labels

'Avocado snack' by Voxphoto
under a CC license

The more consumers become aware of the links between food and health, the more active the triangle of the food market, scientists and policy makers becomes.

In Europe, stakeholders of the food world are already engaged in the discussion on the nutrition and health claims that may appear on foodstuffs. An EC Regulation is in place (EC/1924/2006) but essential elements of that Regulation are still in the making. Such elements include the lists of health claims, which will define the claims and the exact conditions under which they can be displayed on a foodstuff.

Another element, quite important, is the definition of the nutrient profiles, which will make a food eligible to bear claims. Nutrient profiles are being worked on by EFSA experts; what makes it interesting, is that those profiles are, in very simple terms, an effort to determine whether a food is 'good' or 'not so good' and allow claims to appear only on the 'good' ones. Doing that, of course, is not an accurate science but it does rely on effectively summing up whatever established scientific facts on food and nutrition exist. In some places, nutrient profiles are already present and are taken into consideration in the advertising of foodstuffs - though mostly on a voluntary basis.

The food labels are likely to change yet once more in the future. In Europe, the GDA labelling (an industry-supported voluntary nutrition labelling scheme) has gained plenty of momentum. In the US there is the 'Rethink the Food Label' effort, which leans onto the public to put forward proposals for a better label. I can't predict what the outcome will be. Personally, I would prefer scientists to strongly pump input to the process. But I do see that food labels should make the most that consumer perception allows for.

Parallel to the labelling developments, the communication of nutrition facts is - once more - being re-processed. In the US, the typical food pyramid is being replaced. The new icon is a plate, accompanied with clear dietary advice. Is that going to be an effective way to further 'activate' consumers towards a healthier nutrition? Was the old, pyramid figure judged as ineffective (for sure, it seems it had caused some friction with the industry stakeholders)? Time will tell, I suppose. But - as always - reliable information is a key for good decision making; even if all at stake is just the supermarket shopping.

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