Creating Wholesome Meals Environments – EU Coverage and Key Stakeholder Enter –

As obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) continue to weigh on society, governments around the world have committed to addressing this common and complex challenge. Reducing NCD risk factors by creating healthier food environments, the space where people encounter the food system, is an important goal that requires an inclusive approach and the commitment of all relevant stakeholders. In the EU, the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy is developing a variety of public health and nutrition policies aimed at a healthier food environment.

ISA is proud to support a recent EURACTIV event where panelists discussed EU food policy aimed at creating healthy food environments for EU citizens, with a focus on input from various stakeholders. The food industry plays a key role in enabling healthy eating, thanks in part to reformulation with ingredients such as low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners that can help reduce the sugar in foods and beverages while maintaining the enjoyment of the sweet taste. The contribution of other stakeholders to ensuring science-based consumer education and policymaking and a level playing field for industry could further help achieve the objectives of the F2F strategy.

How can the food industry contribute to a healthier food environment?

The private sector plays an important role in creating healthier food environments and giving people access to healthier food. Policy makers have urged them to contribute by “reformulating products to offer healthier options that are affordable, accessible, and comply with relevant nutrition claims and labeling standards”.

During the Euractiv event, MEP Christine Schneider, EPP shadow rapporteur for the Farm to Fork strategy, pointed out that creating healthy food environments is one of the main goals of F2F and that industry has a crucial role to play in this.

Stineke Oenema from UN Nutrition, an inter-agency coordination and cooperation mechanism of the United Nations for nutrition at the global and country level, emphasized that the reformulation of food is an important step in order to offer products with a lower content of certain ingredients such as sugar, fats and salt in line with public health recommendations. Considering that it is never a single food that is healthy or not, but the whole diet, the food industry can help by creating products that could be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Valentina Nolli from the German wholesaler METRO AG pointed out that food and beverages must have certain properties in order to be accepted by consumers, especially the taste. The reformulation enables the development of products with a healthier profile while meeting consumer preferences. Research and innovation are key to finding the right formulation that is acceptable to the customer.

Emma Calvert of BEUC, the European consumer organization, also stressed that industry cannot do this alone and that while there are some trailblazers, the commitment of policy makers is needed to ensure a level playing field and encourage further industry action.

What role can food ingredients such as low / zero calorie sweeteners play in a healthy and sustainable diet?

Professor Anne Raben from the University of Copenhagen spoke about the scientific evidence and ongoing research on low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners as sugar alternatives and their role in a less high-energy diet. Research over the past 20 years has shown that low or zero calorie sweeteners can be effective in reducing caloric intake and body weight when used to replace sugar in the diet, as shown in thorough systematic reviews. An ongoing research project funded by EU Horizon 2020, the SWEET project, has brought together a consortium of 29 pan-European research, consumer and industrial partners and aims to explore the role of low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners in sugar reduction and in the Health and sustainability.

When asked about the role of food ingredients such as low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners in a healthy diet, Stineke Oenema pointed out that the reformulation is an important step in reducing the content of certain nutrients such as sugar, in line with public health recommendations and within an overall healthy diet. “Reformulating foods that lower the sugar content of, for example, sugary beverages can help a lot.” If you look at the whole diet, nutritional guidelines based on solid scientific knowledge can be a helpful tool to not only consumers but also producers inform and thus create a level playing field for these important interest groups and even for political decision-makers.

Emma Calvert added that many food manufacturers are choosing low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners to reformulate foods and beverages while maintaining the sweetness level. BEUC not only wants to reduce the sugar, but also the sweet taste.

Valentina Nolli pointed out that the reformulation makes it possible to develop products with a healthier profile while preserving the taste. As a wholesaler, METRO works with producers to promote such measures and has also been on the way to reducing the sugar in their own products. However, the range of low-sugar products alone is not enough and must go hand in hand with educating consumers and retail customers.

What’s the best way to build consumer confidence in food and food ingredients? How can science help?

MEP Christine Schneider highlighted the importance of consumer education and the role of science in informing about food ingredients, such as too much sugar, and about healthy eating, but always as part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

On the question of the consumer-understandable use of scientific advice, Professor Anne Raben said that in order for evidence-based information to have the best effect on consumers, certain channels, in particular policy makers, public health, must be used by professionals and journalists. While science can provide answers, other actors play a key role in communicating science to the public. For example, we need to be careful that consumers can’t have anything sweet as studies have shown that products with low / no low calorie sweeteners allow for a more enjoyable diet with fewer calories and thus can help people lose weight or stay healthier weight loss through permanent adherence a low-calorie and low-sugar diet.

In the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the panelists also pointed to increased awareness of the importance of healthy and sustainable nutrition, especially as obesity and NCDs can lead to more serious consequences of Covid-19. Food environments should enable healthier food choices and ultimately help achieve healthier diets for all.

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