Chartron, vice chair of the CIAA Diet Task Force, spoke to FoodNavigator.com about issues raised at a multi-stakeholder dinner debate on food and drink reformulation held in Brussels late last week. The CIAA hosted the event, which involved independent researchers, policymakers and industry representatives, to discuss actions being taken across Europe to improve food products’ nutritional composition.
She said the event presented an opportunity to share what industry has already done in terms of reformulation – and to highlight the importance of finalising pending legislation on labelling and health claims in order to retain industry momentum behind those efforts.
She said: “All participants share this vision that we need to do something about obesity. Reformulation is a part of that, but there are questions of timing, of geography.”
Chartron said that the CIAA is keen to retain a voluntary system of reformulation across Europe, in order to better reflect the consumption habits and taste expectations of different nations.
“We have to adapt to the consumer demand,” she said. “Across many European countries, many people are used to a lot of salt in their food because that is how they preserved their food. For them, they need to move step by step or they will reject reformulated products…This is the key challenge for the food industry.”
In terms of salt, she said that intake is much higher in Hungary, for example, than in France, so the starting point is different.
“This is a key point: We need to know where we are starting from and where we need to go…We need to look at which food categories add most salt to the diet in each particular country.”
She added that being able to communicate these changes is also important, and some smaller companies in particular may be waiting for the outcome of labelling and health claims regulation decisions before investing in reformulation.
“These are the only points that could slow down the process,” she said. “…If they can’t communicate that to the consumer, consumers can’t make informed choices.”
For other nutrients – and saturated fats in particular – Chartron said that there is a need for more scientific understanding before the industry can be expected to move ahead with reformulation.
“For saturated fat, we want to wait a little bit for the science because at the moment in the European Union not all scientists are talking with the same voice,” she said. “If you take for example stearic acid, there’s some evidence that this fat is neutral…We need to focus on the specific ones that are deleterious to health.”
She explained that a few years ago, cutting out carbohydrates, such as bread and potatoes, was a strong trend, but the evidence that this was beneficial for health was not strong. Because it is an expensive, lengthy process to reformulate foods, the industry needs to be reasonably sure that progress in scientific understanding is not going to negate the efficacy of its actions a few years down the line.
“We would like to base our reformulation efforts on science,” she said.
Chartron also highlighted that some non-governmental organisations had expressed concern that the cost of reformulation could mean that reformulated, healthier products may only be accessible to those in higher socioeconomic groups.
“The food industry has the exact opposite approach,” she said. “We reformulate products that are the most consumed in Europe.”