Get to know more about food, nutrition and health

EU Chooses Safe Food

No matter what our food preferences are, one thing we have in common is that we all want our food to be safe. Talking about food safety, and the systems in place to achieve this, is important to reduce unfounded fears about food safety and help us to understand what we can do to contribute.

Across the EU, communication on food-related risks and appropriate responses is the task of European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). On World Food Safety Day (7 June 2021), EFSA launched EU Choose Safe Food’ to raise awareness about food safety. EuroFIR supports any such efforts to provide information about the science that brings safe food to our tables.

When talking about food safety, it is essential to differentiate this term from food security, which is challenging because many EU languages use the same word for security and safety. Food security refers to enough food, whilst food safety ensures that food we eat does not have adverse effect on our health or cause illness, and spans across the whole food chain, from production, processing, packaging, through transport and selling, and, finally, purchase, preparation, and storage. Thus, food safety really is everyone’s business!

The supply of safe food has always been a challenge, but globalisation has raised the bar even higher. In the early 1990s, we saw a series of food safety crises hit EU (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy [BSE, or “mad cow disease”],  salmonellosis, dioxin contamination). As it is in life, however, food crises are an opportunity for growth, and EU food safety system were improved, regaining consumer trust quickly following the establishment of an independent agency (European Food Safety Authority), which is responsible for assessing all potential food-related risks and providing independent scientific advice. EFSA was founded in 2002, and the same year Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 was published, establishing EFSA and adopting general principles and requirements of food law laying down procedures in matters of food safety,.

EU food safety systems are organised following clear functional and institutional separation of risk assessment and risk management. EFSA assesses food safety risks whilst others (i.e. European Commission, European Parliament, and EU Member States’ authorities) are responsible for risk management, on basis of EFSA’s scientific assessment and advice. This approach helps ensure impartiality and transparency of scientific advice as well as implementation of policy at national and EU levels.

Food safety systems include numerous scientists from different disciplines relevant to food safety: nutritionists,biologists, toxicologists, veterinarians, chemists, statisticians, etc. but also, lawyers, social and risk communication researchers, and enforcement officers working in the field. EuroFIR has contributed to food safety by harmonising food data composition, which forms the basis of many food-related risk assessments. Currently, EuroFIR is also proud to be part of a project updating EFSA’s RPC (Raw Primary Commodity) model, one of the tools used for assessing dietary exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides and feed additives, thereby helping to ensure the safety of food in the EU and, ultimately, protecting consumer health.

 

Making plant-based an everyday choice

As suggested by the name, a plant-based diet focuses on foods primarily from plants, which includes not only fruits and vegetables but also nuts, seeds, oils, grains and legumes. Whether a plant-based diet is healthier than one including meat is still under discussion. However, reducing consumption of red meat and eating a diet rich in plant-based foods are associated with health benefits; plant-based diets also have the potential to help combat global warming by reducing the consumption of precious resources including water.

Undoubtedly, plant-based diets are becoming more common. Countries where vegetarian and vegan diets were traditionally the norm still have the highest proportion of citizens consuming plant-based diets, e.g. India (around 38% of the total population), but these are increasing elsewhere too, e.g. Israel (13%), Taiwan (12%), Italy (10%) and Austria (9%).

The food and beverage industry are aware of this shift in consumer behaviour and adapting quickly to meet consumers’ demands. Moreover, a new type of consumer has emerged, one who cares as much about the impact of their food on the climate as about their health.

Industry response began with the explosion in veggie or plant-based (usually nut) ‘milk’, which resulted in new legislation to ensure consumers understood better what these are. Terms like ‘almond milk’ have been replaced by almond drink, but it is still possible to find products with meat and fish-like names, e.g. veggie burgers or sausages and vegan cheese. However, the flag of prohibition flies once again over the European Parliament, since these names have the potential to mislead consumers.

Irrespective of what they are called, some of these products are extremely successful. Oatly, the Swedish oat drink company is a hit with the market based on the campaign “It’s like milk but made for humans” and Beyond Meat, an American meat substitute company, aims to make consumers “swear its beef”, despite being made from pea protein. Although these products are becoming more popular and easier to find, they are still perceived as “only for vegetarians”. Thus, how might the industry make these plant-based meals an everyday choice for a wider range of people?

The food industry is pursuing two paths, namely health claims and mimicking meat. Whilst reducing consumption of red meat is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, for example, there is no evidence that meat-free alternatives (e.g. meat-free bacon) are healthier. Instead, efforts are directed at reformulation and associated claims, i.e. ‘Sugar-free’, ‘less than X% fat’.

Danisco Planit has carried out several studies exploring how they might make plant-based meals more acceptable to meat lovers. Following a sophisticated method that combines tools from sensory science, researchers evoked, measured, analysed, and interpreted responses to certain foods, taking into account sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Among the factors analysed, two had key roles, specifically taste and texture. In general, the more a meat substitute tastes and has the mouthfeel of meat, the more likely meat-eaters are to buy it.

A study carried out by Mintel in the United Kingdom concluded that a quarter of adults who do not eat meat-free foods would be more likely to try them if they tasted like meat; 18% would be encouraged to eat them if the texture was the same as meat, whilst 14% stated that ‘bleeding’ veggie burgers were more appealing. Once again, the industry has acted on this valuable information and it is now common to see claims such as “crispy” on tofu or “juicy and tenders” on meat-free burgers.

Despite the discovery of new paths to attract consumers, key takeaways include:

  • Factors such as health, climate and environment, and ethics (e.g. animal welfare) are driving consumers away from animal-based products, which means there is mass-market appeal for potential plant-based products
  • The success of meat alternatives will come from meeting consumers expectations/ demands for ‘meatier’ flavour and texture profiles, which also creates opportunities for developing unique flavour personalities for plant-based products.
  • Meat and dairy products are more available than plant-based products; retail needs to develop new formats and expand space for plant-based alternatives to attract new customers

Plant-based products are here to stay, and it is only a matter of time before they are as integrated as beef burgers, cows’ milk and fish fingers.

 

World Diabetes Day!

On this day, 129 years ago, Sir Frederick Grant Banting was born. He would later co-discover insulin with Charles Bent. In 1991, World Diabetes Day was created by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and WHO. This year’s theme is The Nurse and Diabetes, but the aim remains the same- to raise awareness about the disease and those who live with it.

Diabetes is a chronic, metabolic disease characterised by elevated blood glucose (blood sugar) concentrations and, broadly, there are two different types of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. In type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Type 2 occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or does not produce enough of it.

In recent decades, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has increased dramatically. For people living with this disease, access to affordable treatment, including insulin, is essential, but a healthy diet is also important to control surges and dips in blood sugar. Untreated diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (such as stroke or heart attack) as well as blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage. It is not known whether those living with diabetes are at greater risk of coronavirus infection, but it is known that those with diabetic comorbidities are usually more vulnerable to being unwell.

In the past, progression of type 2 diabetes was regarded as inevitable, but there is evidence that significant weight-loss through clinically supervised dietary interventions can halt or reverse this condition in some individuals. It is, therefore, essential that anyone living with diabetes follows a healthy diet and keeps an active lifestyle. Weight loss of 10% can improve significantly glucose control and triglycerides concentrations, as well as reducing blood pressure.

Nutrition has an important role in both the prevention and management of diabetes. It is essential that those diagnosed with diabetes work with healthcare professionals to manage their condition. Everyone should be treated as an individual, as diet needs to be aligned with lifestyle and medication, especially insulin. People with diabetes should eat regularly and control carbohydrate intake, whilst making sure they consume enough dietary fiber (> 25g/ day), limit intake of simple sugars (including added sugars) and prioritise consumption of products with a low glycaemic load. Alcohol is not generally recommended, as it can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Food for thought:

  • 422 million people worldwide live with diabetes, which is 1 individual in 11.
  • Diabetes was associated with 4.2 million premature deaths (under 75 years of age) in 2019; 1.6 million deaths can be attributed directly to diabetes, making it one of the leading causes of death, together with cancer and cardiovascular disease.
  • 1 in 5 people living with diabetes (136 million) is aged 65 years or older
  • Two-thirds of people with diabetes live in urban areas.
  • More than three out of four people with diabetes live in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Diabetes and comorbidities were responsible for at least €760 billion spent on health in 2019, which is ca. 10% of the total healthcare expenditure globally.
  • Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable by maintaining normal body weight, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet. Smoking can be a potential risk factor for diabetes, which is why quitting can be considered a preventative measure.
  • Healthy eating habits and physical activity have positive impacts on management of diabetes.

Food label information

In past decades the numbers of food stuffs available in supermarkets have increased considerably. Purchasing groceries is a common activity, and yet understanding exactly what we buy can sometimes be tricky and information on food labels can feel overwhelming. While it is not always easy, there are reliable sources that can provide you with key information.

In the European Union (EU), food label information is ruled primarily by two Regulations including the Food Information to Consumer Regulation (FIC)  and Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (HCR). The former describes information that must (e.g. nutrient content, e.g. fat) or can (e.g. vitamins) be indicated on a product, while the latter addresses claims that can be made about a product, i.e “A good source of calcium. Calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones”.

Essential (mandatory) information is:

  • Name of the food
  • Ingredients, from maximum to minimum quantity
  • Allergens, i.e. gluten, eggs, soy, nuts, milk, and fish
  • Date of minimum durability, “best before” (i.e. when a food is expected to retain the highest quality) or “use by” (i.e. when the food can be eaten safely)
  • Nutrient content (per 100 g or 100 ml or portion), specifically energy values (in kcal), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and salt; labels may also include fiber, starch, vitamins, and minerals.

Country of origin or place of provenance must be included for certain products (e.g. honey) and font size must not be less than 1.2 mm. Protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI) and traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) must only be used on products that are as described, rather than “in the style of”, e.g. “Greek yogurt” versus “Greek style yogurt”. Additional information may be added, provided products meet the requisite criteria and descriptions do not mislead consumers. The most common ones include “gluten-free” and “suitable for vegans/ vegetarians”, or origins of the products, e.g. “cheese from Italy” or methods of production, e.g. “following the original Dutch recipe”.

National governments can also introduce further regulation. In United Kingdom, for instance, the so-called “Natasha’s Law” will come into force next October 2021.  By the new piece of legislation, any business based in the country shall clearly label all foods packed and produced on their premises, specifying both ingredients and allergens. The legislative initiative was motivated by Natasha Ednan-Laperouse death, who suffered a fatal allergic reaction in a plane after eating sesame seeds contained in a baguette with no allergen information at Heathrow Airport.

 

Front-of-pack descriptions summarise the detailed information provided elsewhere and aim to help consumer to make healthier choices quickly. They are usually colourful and very visible and, in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands or Luxembourg, NutriScore also describes the nutritional quality from A to E, where A the healthiest and E the least healthy. In Sweden, Denmark and Lithuania, the keyhole logo is used, whilst the “little heart” logo is used in Slovenia, “healthy living” logo in Croatia, the “heart” symbol in Finland, and the traffic light system in the UK and Ireland; the NutrInform ‘battery’ will be implemented in Italy soon.

Other front-of-pack schemes, often industry-derived, also exist across the EU food sector, such as the healthy choice logo or reference intakes labels, which indicate amounts of energy, fat, sugar, salt, etc. as a percentage of maximum intakes for an adult. However, these can be misleading, because percentages are calculated based on 2000 kcal/ day diet, irrespective of sex or age, and expressed “per portion”, which might only be 25 g from a 100 g pack. Also, percentages are a maximum, which we do not need to achieve …

Food labelling systems, however, remain in the spotlight and are likely to be modified again within Farm-to-Fork Strategy <https://ec.europa.eu/food/farm2fork_en>. A compulsory scheme for front-of-pack might be implemented, based on NutriScore, with additional information about environmental impact. With this regard, the European Commission is developing an impact assessment to study the adoption of a harmonised wide European environmental label which indicates elements such as the ecological footprint, the gas emission or the environmental impact of food long distance travel.

EuroFIR supports fully the wider aim to legislate for legal, honest, accurate, and understandable labeling of food products. We want comprehensive food labelling scheme(s) that are scientifically rigorous and consumer friendly. We also encourage consumers to spend some time reading and understanding food labels to help them make food choices.

Understanding what we eat and how it impacts our health is the first step in making healthier eating habits and knowing exactly what you are eating, e.g. fruit yogurts do not always contain fruit, sometimes just fruit flavours, and “natural” almond drink might contain added sugar.

If after reading the labels you still have doubts, buy vegetables and fruit; these foods do not mislead, but skip the plastic wraps if you also want to do help protect the environment.