The European Parliament's Heart Group has declared its preferred best approach to front of pack labelling for food so consumers can see at a glance whether a product is good for their heart: four key nutrient quantities, plus colour coding.
Heart health is of major global concern. In Europe, cardiovascular disease - which is closely linked with obesity and diabetes - accounts for 4.3 million deaths a year, and costs the EU over €192bn.
Although addressing the problem is only partly a matter of food (with physical activity, education and government strategy also important), it is very relevant at the present time since the European Commission proposed new legislation on food labelling at the beginning of this year.
The Commission proposed that products would be required to show energy, fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates (the four key nutrients), with specific reference to sugars and salt content of the product, expressed in terms of per 100ml/100g or per portion. In addition, the amount of these elements in relation to the reference intakes would have to be indicated.
This approach is broadly in-line with the Guidance Daily Amounts (GDA) scheme developed by the CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU) and already being used by more than 50 manufacturers across the bloc.
However it left way for national schemes to co-exist, since it said it did not have sufficient data to back one particular scheme. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has propounded an at-a-glance scheme using traffic light colours, which is based on nutrient profiling and indicates whether a product contains high, medium or low levels of energy, saturated/trans fats, sugars and salt.
At a meeting in Brussels yesterday, members of the Parliament's Heart Group said they want the Commission to "improve" on its proposal, by applying colour coding such as that used in the UK to quantitative information on the four nutrients on the front of pack.
It also wants mandatory information on the front of pack on 'the big eight' - that is, energy, protein, carbohydrate, sugars, fibre, fat, saturated fat, trans fat and salt.
Co-chair of the MEP Heart Health Group, Dr Adamos Adamou, MEP, said "Consumers demand and people need better information on label; information that is clear, simple, comprehensive and standardised."
"Front of pack labelling should allow consumers to know at a glance whether a product contributes to their health or not," said Susanne Logstrup, director of the European Heart Network.
But Professor William Wijns, spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology, also stressed the importance of consumers actually knowing what foods are good for them.
"We also need to educate consumers on the adequate amounts of sugar, salt and fat intake, as well as healthy portion sizes."
Meanwhile, a recent survey conducted by Standard Life Healthcare has indicated that at present one in three men and one in five women do not read the nutrition information label on food packaging.
The survey, conducted amongst 1000 adults as a follow-on from an earlier study showing that people are confused by mixed-messages on healthy eating, also identified some differences in what catches the attention of different consumer groups.
The under 25's were seen to be more concerned with calorie counting than with levels of salt, protein, fibre and fat; man are more concerned about protein, fibre and salt than women.
"The issue is how many people don't check out what's healthy and what's not and that suggests that there is still confusion," said Mandy Blanks, a spokesperson for Standard Life Healthcare. "Minor changes to diet can not just help overall health it can also have a major impact on mood and general wellbeing too so it's worth getting good advice on nutrition.'
A spokesperson for the European Commission told FoodNavigator.com that the law making process for the food labelling legislation is still at a relatively early stage. A second meeting on the proposal is scheduled for next week, June 12.
It is impossible to say when the final version may be agreed, as it depends very much on the priorities of the incoming French presidency, she said.