Food, nutrition and health. A step in the right direction?

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Undoubtedly, there is nowadays a growing sentiment towards food and its effects on health.

People are worried about health risks related to certain foods.

In practice, the selective approach that is prevailing, focuses exclusively on nutrition, putting aside other considerations – culture, sociology, genetics, environment, employment, economics and internal market – that are also crucial part of the equation.

The main problem behind this discussion is that ‘per se’ there is no coherent debate at all, and each of the stakeholders (both public and private) is more interested in emphasizing its own point and discarding the others, than in finding the way to make progress through cooperation. Because, do not forget, all the actors share the same objective: to make a virtuous circle between food and health in order to improve healthier lifestyles of the consumers, and no single entity can tackle the challenges of nutrition and health-related issues alone.

It is now time to build trust and effective cooperation at the EU level.

This is in fact what Farm Europe has been promoting in the context of the Global Food Forum, which was held in Milan last October, with one of the workshops dedicated to this issue.

In the past weeks, various debates held in Brussels gave us the opportunity to hear from the Commission some messages that could open the door to a new way of thinking, which is much in line with what has been discussed during the Global Food Forum.

The first one relates to the debate on how to improve a more balanced diet without focusing too much on specific nutrients. This is indeed a key issue to address, as we tend to focus the attention on ‘good/healthy’ and ‘bad/unhealthy’ products individually, by considering specific nutrients in food (i.e. salt, saturated fat or added sugar), while the key point is to think about eating patterns and dietary factors, which can imply a variety of foods with healthy nutrients. The concept is straightforward: no single product (or nutrient), taken in isolation is a choice, thus variety is key in a healthy diet and all foods bring different nutrients to the mix.

The real challenge is how to drive people to a healthier lifestyle and, precisely, how to communicate it in the most effective and responsible manner.

This is actually what seems to be the main struggle within the food industry, which is totally aware of the decisive role it can play in guaranteeing the nutritional quality of products, not only with respect to salt, saturated fat levels and energy content, but they are also committed to increase positive nutrition. The concept of positive nutrition relates to offering products with an improved nutritional composition.

Secondly, the Commission foresees the need to think about the actual legislative framework (General Food Law Regulation), and how it can be improved and eventually extended to other areas, in close cooperation with Member States and the participation of the relevant stakeholders, taking into account the current trends and needs.

It seems clear that Europe needs a broad general framework and to simply come out of the mist on nutrition and health domains. This general framework should prevent inter alia the risks of fragmentation of the internal market that we face with the endless list of national, regional or local initiatives already in place.

Third, something has to be done with the “apparent erosion of public trust in our science – based system“. Fully agree. The lack of a minimum consensus on food and nutrition critical issues leads directly to misunderstandings, consumer confusion and wrong decision making. And this includes the need to rethink how can we reinforce EFSA as the reference for excellence in science and food.

Fourth, the need to improve communication. In this world of information overload, “information, misinformation, prejudices, opinions , truths, half- truths and un-truths compete for attention”. Rigor and better communication of science are needed so that people can be better informed about issues and risk management decisions.

This is absolutely true, and a big malaise of our model. We need to separate science from opinion, and as media are the way to translate science into public opinion, it is from the outmost importance to give them tools to better do their job.

The reliance on nutritional communication of health benefits should be definitely improved.

Fifth, innovation. “A constant challenge is to find the best way to continue to empower consumers to improve their health, while, at the same time, leaving flexibility for the food industry to innovate”. In this context, how the industry can formulate better products through non-legislative approaches is another point that can be improved. Moreover, we think that stronger efforts on research and innovation getting the links of the food chain working together – and not only the industry – should help to improve healthier habits and ways of consumption.

However, in order to do that, the food chain needs the help of public authorities if we want to pass innovations to consumer and improve their perception on food. This because there is a huge difference between what consumers believe is good and what is perceived as good.

All the points raised here are very much in line with a new way of thinking about food and health, which should aim at bringing together the interested parties and trying to get a common, balanced approach in working together against NCDs, whose high prevalence in Europe is of serious concern.

The General Food Law Regulation has almost 15 years, and is close to be of legal age. A comprehensive policy evaluation is under way to assess whether the regulatory framework for the food and feed sector is fit for purpose and whether it properly addresses current trends and needs. REFIT is the word, and we think that what we have heard in the last weeks are promising steps in the positive direction. Let’s keep the right pace.