Nutrient profiles are to protect consumers from misleading advertising and deceit
If the adverts are to be believed, then breakfast cereals improve performance, probiotic drinks strengthen the immune system and sweets can contribute to a svelte bikini silhouette because they contain little fat. The number of products on the market with nutrition and health claims is constantly rising and some consumers who optimistically purchased them are asking themselves why they still have a runny nose. This unsatisfactory situation for consumers will change when the Health Claims Regulation comes into force on 1 July 2007 in the EU. From that date onwards manufacturers will only be allowed to use claims that have been scientifically proven and are contained in an EU positive list. Furthermore, the food will have to correspond to a specific nutrient profile. The aim is to protect consumers from misleading advertising and deceit. The scientific proof of health claims, that will be required in future, could also herald in a reversal of the trend when it comes to preventing diet-related diseases like obesity. However, consumers will not actually see the impact of the new Regulation on the supermarket shelves for another two to three years. Between now and 2009 the scientific groundwork is to be done on the European level and "old health claims" may still be used until then, provided that they are not misleading.
The Regulation will mean changes not just for consumers. It will also harmonise the provisions on the use of nutrition and health claims which vary considerably from Member State to Member State. This is likely to facilitate the classification of the products by the official food control authorities. Industry faces a challenge, too. If scientific proof can be provided, then in the future industry will be able to use claims not only about the physiological function of a nutrient (“Calcium is important for healthy bones”) but also claims about reducing the risk of disease (“Adequate calcium intake can reduce the risk of osteoporosis”). Claims like this are currently banned in Germany.
Nutrient profiles are to serve as the scientific basis for claims of this kind. If a food is to bear nutrition or health claims then the composition of the food will have to comply with specific criteria. If the food even deviates from one of the stipulated nutrient levels, then this will have to be indicated. Sweets containing little fat but a lot of sugar will then only be allowed to bear the claim “low in fat” if there is a parallel reference to a possibly high sugar content. The objective is to prevent consumers expecting a higher health benefit than the food actually offers.
In 2005 the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment was asked by the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) to draw up a scientific concept for the preparation of nutrient profiles. Over the last two years experts from BfR together with external experts have worked on this concept which they presented to the general public at the 3rd BfR Consumer Protection Forum in Berlin. According to this concept nutrient profiles should take the levels of various nutrients and substances with dietary or physiological effects into account. They could include fat, saturated and trans-fatty acids as well as sugar and salt or the vitamins, minerals, Omega-3 fatty acids and fibre which are viewed positively from the nutritional-physiological angle. BfR is of the opinion that the latter should occur naturally in foods. The reasoning behind this is to prevent a food qualifying for a health claim as a consequence of fortification.
The concept does envisage exemptions for specific foods and food categories related to the importance of the food for diet: for instance unprocessed foods like meat, fish, milk, fruit or vegetables. No nutrient profiles need to be developed for them. Nevertheless, they may still be sold with health claims. The concept for nutrient profiles as the pre-requisite for health claims should be sensible and practicable and should not merely create new bureaucratic obstacles.
When the concept was presented at the 3rd Consumer Forum it met with a very positive response. The position paper can be accessed on the BfR homepage. Major contributions from the discussions with stakeholders are to be added and published as an updated version. The position paper will be made available to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which was asked to submit scientific proposals for Europe-wide nutrient profiles by the European Commission. The Commission then has until January 2009 to specify the profiles.
The BfR Position Paper can be accessed on the BfR website (http://www.bfr.bund.de/cd/template/index_en) under Publications/Position Papers.