Nutrition profiles, WHO advances and Europe retrogresses

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So-called ‘nutrient profiles’ are used to classify foods and beverages on the basis of their nutritional characteristics, with the aim of facilitating healthy consumption choices and reducing the incidence of obesity, overweight and diseases resulting from dietary imbalances. Such as type 2 diabetes, which is growing in epidemic proportions on five continents, cardio-vascular diseases and other even more serious Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs). The World Health Organization, WHO, is therefore developing special Guidelines with a view to adopting these criteria (1) in its 193 member countries to better fulfill its constitutional objective of promoting the attainmentments by all populations of the highest possible level of health, defined as a ‘condition of complete physical, mental and social well-being.’ But at the same time, the European Union, whose populations are also plagued by the increasing spread of the aforementioned diseases, is taking a step backward on this very front. How is this possible? Let’s try to understand it togetherme.

Obesity has doubled worldwide since 1980. Two billion out of seven human beings are obese or overweight, and at least 2.8 million people die each year because of it. The number of overweight children under the age of 5, 43 million in 2013, has doubled since 1990 and is estimated to double further in the next decade (2). The multiple causes can be summarized as the imbalance between energy taken in through food and that consumed in physical activities, and the excessive intake of sugar, saturated fat and salt. The WHO’s practical advice for a healthy diet is therefore focused on these crucial elements, as well as on the need to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, toward a minimum daily target of 5 servings of approx. 400 grams (3).

Simple sugars, saturated fats and salt are at the heart of WHO recommendations, where so-called ‘free sugars’ should not exceed 10 percent of total energy intake (i.e., no more than 50 grams, or about 12 teaspoon shaved, for an average normal-weight adult with a requirement of 2,000 kcal/day) and should ideally be limited to 5 percent, or half, to achieve additional health benefits. Fats should not exceed 30 percent of energy intake, with preference given to mono- and polyunsaturated fats (offered by olive and seed oils, e.g., sunflower and canola, as well as nuts such as walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. Not to mention the health benefits associated with some noble sources of saturated fats, such as milk and yogurt, butter and dairy products in general (4). Excess salt is in turn the leading omidic suspect for heart attack and cardiovascular disease. WHO recommends a preventive measure, no more than 5 grams per day, but Europeans still take about twice that amount.

Nutrient profiles have the specific purpose of demarcating those products within each food category that are nutritionally preferable. Without penalizing foods that go back to the histories of peoples – such as in Italy Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano DOP, extra virgin olive oil to many others – which can be excluded from such ‘criteria’ precisely because of their traditionality of production and moderate consumption, which is within the framework of historically balanced diets – as precisely suggested by the WHO itself.

The applications of the profiles, for public health protection, are many: – towards producers, profiles can stimulate the reformulation of food and beverages in tune with current nutrition needs 5. Through restrictions on marketing aimed at children and adolescents and limits on the use of nutritional and health claims on products that do not conform to established parameters, to which special tax measures such as the so-called ‘junk-food tax,’ ‘soda tax,’ can be dedicated, to be supplemented with measures to curb the prices of vegetables, fruits and other health foods (6), – in public education and information programs aimed at promoting healthy eating, selection criteria may lead to synthetic information tools on product labels (such as ‘traffic lights’ in UK, ‘healthy logos’ in NL, ‘keyhole system’ in DK, SW, NOR, FIN). To make consumers aware of the need to minimize consumption of products whose nutritional characteristics are excessive, if not extreme. So that the so-called ‘indulgence’ goes overboard and leads to unnecessary sickness.

The World Health Organization is working with international experts at the review of the various schemes adopted for more than two decades by governments, nongovernmental associations, industries and ‘retailers,’ for the specific purpose of sharing a useful model to favorably affect the health of the planet’s populations, in the face of a global malnutrition risk that otherwise appears unsolvable. In economically ‘advanced’ countries (where as well severe social inequalities are expressed in the terms of ‘food divide’ and ‘health divide’), as in Developing countries (7).

But European nutrition security policies, already a failure (8), have completely stalled. No concrete measures have been taken to date to deal with the deadly excess of the mix of sugar, fat and salt, to which are attributed dangerous health effects but also addictive phenomena not unlike those caused by drugs (9). he nutrient profiles were introduced at the time for the specific purpose of preventing the use of so-called ‘nutrition & health claims’ on unbalanced foods, but the European Commission never dared to counter the lobbying of junk-food manufacturers and failed to define them by 2009, as it should have (10). Despite the fact that Efsa (European Food Safety Authority) had actually published the scientific opinion for this purpose in February 2008 (11).

The European Parliament dealt the final blow to nutrient profiles on 3/26/15, with a large majority (50 votes out of 68) decision by its Environment, Food Safety and Public Health (ENVI) Committee to eliminate their very concept. With a justification that does not help to eliminate suspicions about the effectiveness of the lolobby of ‘junk-food’ producers: the establishment of nutritional profiles by the European Commission today would be late, as well as unnecessary and penalizing with respect to foods characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, as well as for agri-food productions protected by special specifications (such as PDO and PGI). Completely neglecting reassurances, from WHO as well as the ‘claims’ regulation, about safeguarding traditional products.

‘Profit over Public Policies’?

(Dario Dongo)

Notes

(1) http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/profiling/en, http://globalnutritionreport.org/the-data/nutrition-country-profiles, http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/270716/Nutrient-Profile-Model.pdf?ua=1. First comments on http://www.sicurezzaalimentare.it/nutrizione/Pagine/OMSprepara “profilinutritional “masalviDOP-prestrestolimitiapublicitydeceptiveeveninEurope.aspx

(2) Asma Lateef, director of the ‘Bread for the World Institute,’ at http://www.unscn.org/files/Publications/SCN_News/SCNNEWS41_web_low_res.pdf

(3) WHO – World Health Organization, ‘Practical advice on how to maintain a healthy diet’, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs394/en

(4) http://www.thedairyreport.com/why-do-people-drink-milk, http://www.nytimes.com/pages/opinion/index.html

(5) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/obesita-malattie-correlate-industria-deve-riformulare-prodotti-rivedere-pubblicita-denuncia-direttrice-generale-oms.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/se-aumenta-il-prezzo-delle-bibite-cala-lobesit.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/prezzi-frutta-verdura-cibo-sano-sudafrica-fast-food-rand.html

(6) http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/273662/Using-price-policies-to-promote-healthier-diets.pdf?ua=1

(7) http://www.oecd.org/social/income-distribution-database.htm, http://wer.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/WEA-WER-4-Woodward.pdf, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/messico-soft-drink-epidemia-diabete.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/coca-cola-e-pepsico-junk-food-venezuela.html

(8) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/in-europa-sovrappeso-e-obesita-sono-raddoppiati-in-20-anni.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/obesita-europa-in-crescita-allarmante-regno-unito.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/who-cibi-dannosi-salute-consumatori-interessi-industria-alimentare.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/obesita-sovrappeso-ictus-epidemia.html

(9) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/libro-michael-moss-obesita-grassi-zucchero-sale.html

(10) EC Regulation 1924/06, Article 4.

(11) http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/scdocs/doc/644.pdf