FABLE, Food and Beverage Labels Explorer

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FABLE – Food and Beverage Labels Explorer

FABLE – Food and Beverage Labels Explorer – is the new tool developed by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission to collect the general and nutritional information contained in the labels of food products on the EU market. (1)

The objective is to provide citizens, consumer associations, public health organizations and research bodies with a database to evaluate and compare the nutritional profiles of food products with various brands and ‘private labels’. And also encourage the reformulation of foods.

1) FABLE – Food and Beverages Labels Explorer

The nutritional profiles of many foods available on the EU market are often characterized by excesses of sugars, saturated fats and salt (HFFS, High in Fats, Salt and Sugar). With particular regard to ultra-processed foods (Cannella et al., 2023) and those intended for minors (Storcksdieck genannt Bonsmann et al., 2019). (2,3). WHO Europe – in highlighting the correlation between the consumption of ‘HFSS food’, obesity, overweight and NCDS (Non-Communicable Diseases) – continues to recommend, so far in vain, the adoption of nutritional policies aimed at reformulating foods to correct their nutritional profiles (‘food product improvement’). (4)

Availability of data on the nutritional profiles of foods on sale in the Old Continent is still limited to national levels and only in some Member States, thanks to valuable voluntary initiatives such as Open Food Facts in France and Yuka, in several countries. Therefore, to date, there is still no database that systematically collects data relating to the nutritional profiles of foods at a European level, the usefulness of which is, in hindsight, twofold:

– observe the evolution of ‘food product improvement’, in the past and future years,

– check for any discrepancies between foods with identical brands sold in different EU countries (‘dual quality foods‘).

2) Political scenario

The FABLE initiative fits into a bleak scenario, as far as European nutritional policies are concerned. ‘Food product improvement’ had been indicated as a priority at the ‘High Level Group on Diet, Physical Activity and Health’ which however, as we have seen, failed in 2019 (5,6). And the lobbies of the producers of ‘HFFS ​​foods’, or ‘junk-food’, as we have seen, have effectively paralyzed the activities delegated by the European legislator to the Commission. With particular regard to:

– nutritional profiles. Pursuant to the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (EC) No 1924/06, by 19.1.09 the Commission should have introduced a criterion to identify products ineligible to claim health benefits on labels and advertising. Despite the two scientific opinions published by EFSA (2008, 2022. See note 7) and the 15 years that have passed, the Commission is still non-compliant,

– FOPN extension (front-of-pack nutrition labeling). Food Information Regulation (EU) No 1169/11 has in turn provided for the opportunity for the Commission to define a single system of summary nutritional labeling on the front of the package. The most effective system, based on application experiences in 9 European countries and scientific bibliography, is the NutriScore. Also useful for defining nutritional profiles, according to EFSA and the hundreds of scientists who have appealed, so far in vain, to the stone guest in Brussels. (8)

‘EU Salt Reduction Framework’, launched in 2008, is also a failed project. As demonstrated, most recently, by the ‘WHO global report on sodium intake reduction’ (2023). (9)

 3) European projects used

European projects are currently three underlying data collection and classification of foods in the FABLE ‘database’. Best-ReMaP, JANPA and EUREMO.

3.1) Best-ReMaP

‘Best-ReMaP – Health Food for a Healthy Future‘ – is a ‘joint action’ financed by the ‘EU Health Programme’ which aspires to contribute to improving the quality of food supplied to European citizens, through the exchange of news and the testing of good practices on:

– monitoring and analysis of how the food people eat changes at European and national level,
– legislation on the marketing of foods and drinks intended for children and adolescents,
– supply of food by public bodies for schools, social welfare facilities, etc.

The goals pursued by the Best-ReMaP project therefore concern:

– ‘policy brief’ on nutritional policies to be implemented and integrated, at national and European level,
– monitoring and reformulation of processed foods, thanks to the sharing of data on good practices,
– food marketing. Solutions aimed at protecting minors from ‘HFSS foods’ advertising,
– ‘public procurement’ of healthy and balanced foods, thanks to the training of public procurement personnel. (10)

3.2) JANPA

JANPA – ‘Joint Action on Nutrition and Physical Activity‘ – is a project coordinated by the Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail (ANSES, France), to help stop the increase in overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. (11) The joint action involved 39 partners in 24 EU countries, with a focus on the following activities:

– using economic evaluation of the costs of childhood obesity to encourage public action, (12)
– sharing specific tools to promote the improvement of the nutritional quality of foods and consumer information at national level,
– identification and sharing of integrated actions, at local or national level, for nutrition and physical activity. Involving families and professionals in school buildings, as the main areas to act.

3.3) EUREMUS

EUREMO – EU REformulation MOnitoring – was an important feasibility study for a monitoring system on ‘food product improvement’ initiatives aimed at reducing salt, sugar and fat contents in foods. In this context, a mechanism has been developed to evaluate the impact of ‘food reformulation’ initiatives on the intake of nutrients and substances of concern.

Collection of data relating to more than 45.000 food and drink products, in 16 EU member countries, offers useful ideas to national public authorities to promote food reformulation initiatives. EUREMO’s findings are available in its final report. (13)

Outline of the development, functions and purposes of FABLE source-Commission
Fig. 1 – FABLE. Development scheme, functions and purposes (source: European Commission)

4) Data exploration

The FABLE platform allows users to choose the source from which to draw the data relating to foods obtained from the various EU projects, through search keys such as the geographical context (country), individual nutritional values ​​(eg energy, carbohydrates, fats, proteins) and food categories ( i.e. bread, cereals, meat, vegetables, fruit).

The data – expressed in the form of a ‘box plot’ or table – report the reference statistical values ​​such as mean, minimum and maximum range, median, first and third quartile (i.e. Q1 and Q3). The information reported in FABLE can also be compared, considering different categories or subcategories of foods, or different countries (in the latter case a map is also available).

Fig. 2 – FABLE, Comparison of carbohydrate contents in products of the 'bread' category and its subcategories, in Italy and France
Fig. 2 – FABLE, Comparison of carbohydrate contents in products of the ‘bread’ category and its subcategories, in Italy and France

 5) Provisional conclusions

The FABLE project has just been launched and it is necessary that it be implemented with new features, some of which are already in progress, such as ‘dashboards’ for food analysis, specific modules on ingredients, time trends and other types . The development will take into account user reviews and Member States’ activities in actions dedicated to the reformulation of food products.

JRC’s F.1 unit, responsible for the development of FABLE, thus aspires to support ‘policy-makers’ in scenario analyzes useful for carrying out various initiatives to address the public health emergency linked to the consumption of nutritionally unbalanced foods. Such as the necessary restriction of the ‘marketing to kids and teens’ of ‘HFSS foods’, already stigmatized by WHO (2022), (14) and the sustainability of supplies.

Availability of Big Data, and their processing with AI systems, could make the difference. It is therefore useful, in the humble opinion of the writer, to develop research projects which, thanks to public-private synergies, allow:

– the leap in scale, from tens of thousands to millions of data on foods and drinks available in the 27 EU countries,

– real-time updating of changes made to recipes and nutritional profiles of products,

– the use of blockchain technology to validate the recording and updating of data,

– the use of a system of classification of the nutritional profiles of foods, such as NutriScore, already widely tested and the subject of broad scientific consensus.

Dario Dongo and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna

Footnotes

(1) FABLE – Food and Beverages Labels Explorer https://food-labels-explorer.jrc.ec.europa.eu/en

(2) Marta Strinati. Identikit of ultra-processed foods, excess of critical nutrients and ‘cosmetic’ additives. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 2.9.23

(3) Marta Strinati. Baby food, 68% is junk food. European research. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 30.10.19

(4) Sabrina Bergamini, Dario Dongo. Obesity, childhood obesity and marketing. WHO Europe 2022 report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 16.6.22

(5) Dario Dongo. ‘Food product improvement’, nutritional criteria and ‘marketing’, how to deal with the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes? DO (Food and Agriculture Requirements). 28.4.16

(6) Dario Dongo, Giulia Caddeo. Obesity, everything to be redone. Civil society abandons the Brussels platform. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 6.7.19

(7) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Improving diet and public health with useful information on the label. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.4.22

(8) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. NutriScore, a report by 320 scientists to urge the European Commission. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 12.5.23

(10) Best-ReMaP – Health Food for a Healthy Future https://bestremap.eu

(11) Joint Action on Nutrition and Physical Activity https://tinyurl.com/msw8cv6k

(12) Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei. FAO, SOFI report 2023. The hidden costs of agri-food systems. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 13.11.23

(13) European Commission (2022). EU REformulation MOnitoring (EUREMO). Feasibility study for a monitoring system on reformulation initiatives for salt, sugars and fat: final report. Publications Office of the European Union HW-04-22-088-EN-N https://tinyurl.com/2cbk4def

(14) Sabrina Bergamini. Food marketing promotes unhealthy diets for children and teenagers. WHO report. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 28.2.22

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.

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Graduated in Food Technologies and Biotechnologies, qualified food technologist, he follows the research and development area. With particular regard to European research projects (in Horizon 2020, PRIMA) where the FARE division of WIISE Srl, a benefit company, participates.