Read The Small Print

31 Jan 2008

Alarmed by a growth in obesity from the southern Mediterranean to Scotland, the EU moved yesterday to install a new food labeling system. The scheme would provide standardized nutritional information across the 27 EU member countries to help consumers make healthier choices and avoid junk food.

With Europe fast catching up on the US in the obesity stakes, EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou is warning of an ‘emerging health threat’ and the need to take action to encourage European consumers to eat well.

While the Mediterranean diet is widely considered to very healthy, eating habits appear to be changing in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Malta, Gibraltar and Crete, where more than 30% of children between 7 and 11 years old are obese.

The proposed EU rulings will require all prepackaged food to clearly display their sugar, salt, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, and energy content. Individual countries may choose their preferred method of displaying this information, as long as it is displayed on the front of packaging in a minimum font size of 3mm. The proposal now needs to be approved by EU nations and the European Parliament.

Several British organizations, including Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation, have expressed disappointment that the EU has not made the ‘traffic light’ system mandatory. This system, introduced in Britain on a voluntary basis by the Food Standards Agency, uses red, amber and green dots to signal rising levels of salt, sugar and fat.

The main alternative system is the guideline daily amount (GDA) system. Critics argue that people generally do not understand how to read and apply the information given about food composition in a GDA system, and that a ‘traffic light system’ is much more readily understood and adopted.

‘The commission is right to recognize the importance of clear, front-of-pack labeling to help consumers make healthier food choices,’ says Phaedra Neal, of Diabetes UK. ‘But it has ignored evidence which shows the traffic light system works better than the GDA percentage system in allowing people to assess nutrient content and compare different products.’

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