If the latest version is approved, the nutrient profiling model underpinning the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation will severely restrict health and nutrition claims for dairy and cereal products and eliminate claims on chocolate altogether.
The European Commission’s latest working document on nutrient profiles defines the conditions under which nutrition and health claims can be made. This proposes overall thresholds for saturated fat, sugar and sodium per 100g and ‘adapted thresholds’ for categories such as oils and spreads, dairy products (300mg sodium/100g; 2g saturated fat/100g), cheese (600mg sodium/100g; 10g saturated fat/100g), cereals and meat products. If products exceed any of the thresholds, they will automatically be excluded from making health claims. By contrast, nutrition claims will be allowed if only one nutrient exceeds its threshold, but will have to be accompanied by ‘warning’ labels highlighting that product x is also high in fat, salt or sugar.
According to industry sources, a significant proportion of cheese sold in the UK will not meet the nutrient profile for sodium and saturated fat. Whole milk and whole milk products would also be prevented from making claims. More than half of breakfast cereals would also be ineligible owing to their high sugar content.
There is also confusion over which categories certain products fell into, notably fromage frais (cheese or dairy?), fermented milk drinks (dairy or miscellaneous products?), and meat pies (ready meals or meat products?).
Despite intense lobbying from the industry, the only foods exempted from the nutrient profiling system are dietary supplements, chewing gum, baby foods, dietetic foods, raw fruits and vegetables and fruit juices without added sugar.
Worryingly for companies such as Mars and Barry Callebaut, the Commission’s latest draft contains no exemptions or even adapted thresholds for chocolate. That means companies will not be able to make any claims about products containing polyphenols, probiotics or other ‘functional’ ingredients.
And concessions on this front are unlikely, according to sources close to the discussions. The Commission is understood to be keen to limit the number of categories for adjusted profiles to minimise borderline issues and make application of the profiles easier.
Under the timeframe drawn up by the Commission, the profiling scheme must be established by January 2009, which left very little time for proper consultation, said Miguel da Silva at Brussels-based consultant EAS. “There are many unresolved issues within the current draft, particularly over definitions. For example, does a one-shot drink count as a supplement?”
In the long term, the system could have a massive effect on new product development, he predicted. “If you don’t meet the thresholds, you’re effectively excluding yourself from the race.”
Companies were allowed to make nutrition claims about products that exceeded one of the thresholds. But they were in practice highly unlikely to exercise this option as they would also have to attach a warning label to the product, da Silva said.
“You could have two products that both fail to meet the nutrient profile criteria next to each other on the shelf. If one of them wants to make a nutrition claim like “rich in vitamin C”, it will also have to say “high in sugar” on the label. However, the pack next door, which might have three times the sugar content and no obvious health benefits, does not have to say “high in sugar” on the label because it is not making a nutrition claim. It’s ridiculous.”
In the short-term, the system would drive the use of artificial sweeteners in order to keep products under the threshold for sugar, he said.