When claims on food don’t tell the (full) truth

And EU citizens are consciously misled in their food purchase decisions

The sliding door is opening. The uncomfortably hot air blasts your face whilst entering the big hall. And there you are, in the corridors of a supermarket. Today you don’t want to buy much, just something small, healthy – following the current trend to eat and live as healthily as you possibly can.

Therefore you walk straight towards the shop’s fridges. A yogurt seems like a good choice for now. And wow, what a tantalizing offer! All kinds of “low fat”, “light” and “high protein” products are sprawling over fridge shelves.

Lance McCord / Flickr

 

You take a plain yogurt with 0.1 % fat from the shelf. Thank god you don’t have to waste valuable calories by eating yogurt with 3.5 percent fat, or, oh dear, even Greek yogurt with egregious 10 percent of fat, as you had to years ago. Now there are dozens of way lighter, way healthier options, right?

Looking at the nutrition panels on the back of the yogurts you can easily spot the bigger amount of calories high(er) fat products have. Therefore, claims like “fat makes you fat” must be true, right? “Low fat” or “fat free” yogurt, or such lighter (dairy) products in general are the praised solution to all of our problems, if you believe the media. Eating without regrets, with no worries.

Especially in the last couple of years, science must have made huge progress on this nutritional front, as there are thousands of options to eat “light”, “low fat”, or even “non-fat” (dairy-) products.

Happy living in a time when you don’t have to worry about such calorie dilemmas, you leave the supermarket anticipating the enjoyment of your guilt-free pleasure.

Asking a health and fitness professional

The question is, why would Olaf Mann, a professional fitness trainer, former competitor at numerous fitness competitions, always prefer the “full fat” version of a product, rather than one of the assiduously advertised “low fat” products?

Of course everything is unhealthy if you eat it in excess”, Mann says. But you have to keep in mind, there is a huge variety of added sugars, like corn syrup, honey, maltose, dextrose, and so on and so forth, and other ingredients, like algal flours functioning as emulsifiers, in order to maintain the texture and taste of the yogurt. “It is always problematic if added sugars or other added substances are not mentioned as noticeable as claims like a lower fat content is.”, according to Mann. “This is especially problematic if people should learn how to eat more healthily”.

Choosing the “low fat” version of a yogurt, for instance, does not only mean a reduction of your fat consumption but most of the time also an increase of sugar and therefore carbohydrate intake.

Common suggestions for an appropriate consumption of sugar for the average woman are around 90 grams of sugar (added and natural) in total a day. However, added sugars should be limited to around 6 teaspoons of sugar (what comes up to around 100kcal) a day for the average female adult and 9 teaspoons (coming up to around 150 kcal) for the average adult man.

Low fat versions in this context contain multiple times as much added sugars as full fat versions.

Remembering the rule to eat nothing in excess and everything in moderation, the swap from fat to more carbohydrates AKA sugars is not worthwhile.

It is even comparable to the issue with tobacco products, Mann claims. Nowadays you can find health warnings on all of them, claiming nicotine and tar will kill you. “Why can’t you find health warnings saying sugar causes diabetes on sugar-containing food?”

Some may wonder, why the food labelling insufficiency is an EU-wide problem and then, why individual EU member states don’t improve their food labelling situation?

The European Union’s institutions are the ones in charge of regulating all kinds of aspects concerning the European internal single market as well as the trade with trading partners outside the EU. One of those aspects they are in charge of is food labelling and regulating claims on foods in order to not only ensure a European level playing field for the companies but also to protect the consumers in the sometimes rough and competitive economic game, played by producers, investors, interest groups and many more participants.

The politician’s point of view

One of the issues of the European institutions is their plurality.

You have the European Commission as the executive power on the one hand, and the European Parliament as well as the European Council on the second, legislative side.

Asking the Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Bas Eickhout, member of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament and amongst others member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, he says: “We (the European Parliament) can call the responsible Commission towards the Parliament and we can put pressure on them. But in the end, for a law, we are always dependent on an initiative coming from the Commission”. Obviously “there are a couple of problems with EU legislation”.

Talking about the regulation of claims on food, “[t]here is a problem with the labelling. We had a law in the previous term which worked on food labelling”. More concretely, the discussion has been about a traffic light system for food, making it way easier for the consumer to spot at first glance whether a product is high or low in fat and sugar for instance, by colouring that information in red, orange or green.

In the end, the Parliament voted against the new law.

The (food-)lobby won the battle (in the plenary chamber of the European Parliament) because the conservative side of this house has still got the majority. That’s how it works.”

As the conservative part of the Parliament is – in regards to interventions in the marketplace – much more tied to the economy’s notions, they are more likely to have an ear for the concerns of the companies and their lobbies – at least that’s how it seems.

Therefore, now we do have agreements what should be on the label, but “I don’t think any consumer still understands.”, Eickhout says.

It is this lack of understanding which makes the companies able to mislead us, the consumers, who only want to save some calories eating a yogurt, for instance.

Rob Williams / Flickr

And Bas Eickhout goes even further: “The labelling is really a weak thing”. And it is one thing to admit this, whereas it is another one to continue with: “But we lost that battle in the previous term and this Commission will not come up with a new labelling for the same reasons and it is not a priority on their agenda.”

So, as per the MEP, food safety is not on the priority list of the current Commission: “A couple of Commissioners were just sitting on their hands”, in terms of food and its labelling. In other words, the Parliament will – in the foreseeable future – not even try to improve the grade of comprehensibility of labels and claims on food like yogurt or milk. Until the next changeover in the European Commission which will be in 2019 nothing will happen, although the insufficiency of regulations on food labelling and its negative effects, like misleading consumers buying for example “low fat” but sugary dairy products whilst desperately trying to lose weight, are commonly known.

The Commission itself did not want to comment on the addressed food labelling issues.

As the European Union is not a Federation like the USA, for instance, but rather a unique hybrid forged from several different forms of government, legislative powers and actions are mostly very touchy topics inside the Union. Between the EU headquarter in Brussels and the 28, soon to be 27 member states, and also between the Union’s institutions (European Commission, European Council, European Parliament) themselves.

Even the MEP is well aware of people thinking: “What the f*** is the EU doing?”

But “in Brussels everything gets complicated as soon as it is about competences.” says Mr Eickhout, and legislation (for example regarding food labelling) in the EU definitely is a competence still questionable.

What the lobby has to say

And then there is the economy’s point of view. Focusing on dairy products, the industry-sector in Brussels, amongst others, is represented by the European Dairy Association (EDA).

The EDA brings the experience, as well as the industry’s knowledge and needs to the European Commission. […] We are simply assisting, for example in Europe, on a nationalisation of the objective on, for example, on labels.”, Edoardo Brunoni of the EDA when describing the association’s work.

Asking him about his personal opinion about the not, or only hidden mentioned added sugars in “low fat” and “light” dairy products, Brunoni agrees to the criticism that consumers here are often misled. He admits the insufficiency of labelling clarity, but also claims that “[t]his is not just a European but an international problem.”

As there is not just the European Union making rules and regulations concerning food labelling, but also the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the ‘Codix Alimentarius, establishing international food standards, making regulations for labels and claims on food, too.

Edoardo says: “We are part of something. We are part of Europe. We are part of international organizations. But on the other side, we need to protect our markets.”

Furthermore, the EDA member brings up for discussion, that the consumer often misses the bigger picture and cannot classify a single product as “good” or “bad”.

The average time a supermarket-customer spends choosing a product is 3 seconds, Brunoni says.

And “basically, when we buy something, we don’t know what we are buying, because we are not able to understand it.”

But isn’t this exactly what a label should be for? Giving the consumer a quick, simple overview of what a product includes, so he or she can make a reasonable decision of buying or not buying a product, without spending hours and hours in the aisles of the supermarket.

Sean Gregor / Flickr

Now, it might be nice to shout at European Institutions in Brussels demanding better ruling. But again, as Brunoni says:

It’s very tricky. For standardization and regulation, both, there are European obligations and also World Trade Organization obligations – so on a European level and on an international level. And so sometimes, Europe cannot just do what it wants. We are obliged to follow international obligations.”

So what does all that mean in summary?

Now, after you’ve eaten your calorie-friendly, non-fat and allegedly healthy plain yogurt, considering the big, tricky pieces of information you’ve just taken in, you may ask yourself how all that can be European reality.

On the one hand you can ease yourself regarding the labelling and claims on food in the EU, knowing: “If it [a claim like ‘low fat’] is not true, it cannot be on the label”, as Henk Van Leuveren, Professor of Immunotoxicology and Vice Chair of the Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies of EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, assures.

You could trust the claims and labels and keep on consuming “non-fat” and “light” products the same way you did before. Or, if you are sick of the culture, where products are praised as the solution to all dietetic problems, you could also consider paying attention to the bigger framework:

Is the way the European Union acts in terms of legislation, for instance regarding claims on dairy products, acceptable for you personally?

As we have just seen, people with all kinds of angles on this topic agree, that food labelling is not regulated sufficiently enough in the EU, yet. Something maybe should be changed, starting with the distribution of legislative powers between the EU institutions and the member states allowing a more efficient and reasonable way of wielding legislative power.

It appears to be the basic, fundamental problem in the EU: nobody seems to feel really responsible (enough) for sufficient ruling and oversight in the European Union.

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