Pragmatism with a hint of cynicism permeates the British Nutrition Foundation's analysis of the European Commission's proposal for a regulation on nutrition and health claims made on foods. The group has voiced very real concerns about the benefit 'nutritional profiles' can bring to the European consumer.
According to the BNF, the proposed new rules - despite acknowledging that there are no 'good foods' or 'bad foods' - outlines plans to evaluate the "nutritional profiles" of foods with a view to restricting the use of claims on some foods with high fat, high salt or high sugar contents.
But for the BNF, the very nature of this rule means that this process will categorise foods as good or bad in terms of whether they can legally carry nutrition or health claims. According to the proposal, a positive image is conferred on foods bearing claims, and so the converse may also be true - those food items not carrying nutrition claims may be viewed negatively.
Such an approach, claims Dr Brigid McKevith, author of the BNF comments, could have implications for many foods that play an important role in the UK diet and are sources of important nutrients.
For McKevith, setting nutritional criteria for foods is based on the false premise that individual foods should have an ideal composition. "This clearly is irrational, given that the basic principles of a balanced diet, as set out in FSA's Balance of Good Health, is that the strengths and weaknesses of one group of foods are balanced by those of other groups - achieving a healthy diet is a process of balance and compromise over a period of time, which precludes the need to focus on individual foods or meals," said the author in a statement this week.
As a result, the BNF is concerned that people might cut out important elements of their diet. "Given current knowledge from dietary surveys about the food choices made by people who achieve a healthy diet, there will need to be so many exceptions to the nutrient profile approach that it will be unworkable," said the group.
The BNF highlights the example of bread. Once slice of white bread contains 160 mg sodium (461 mg sodium/100g white bread) but bread is also an important source of carbohydrate and fibre in the UK diet.
Moving to milk, whole milk, which is recommended for pre-school children, contains ~4g of fat/100g but it also provides ~3g of protein and 118mg of calcium, both important nutrients for this age group, highlights the BNF. It is also a source of vitamins B2 and B12, providing 0.46mg and 1.8 micrograms in a glass (200g).
The BNF quotes breakfast cereals, cheese and fat spreads as other products that consumers might be tempted to remove from their diet once 'nutritional profiles' are in place.
Creating a unified equitable scheme, that would take into account the above examples, without running the risk of compromising public health is a herculian task, concluded the nutrition group.