At the end of 2006, the European regulation was published regarding the "nutrition and health claims on food." This regulation dictates how and when it is possible to detail certain nutrient content and health claims in the labelling and advertising of foods for consumption. Foods that include such statements in the labelling are usually called functional foods. Some typical examples of nutrition claims are "rich in fibre" or "high in omega-3" and health claims are "reduce cholesterol in blood " or "may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."
Among the objectives that were raised by the legislators in drafting the regulation, is reaching a high level of consumer protection, prevent misleading advertising, increase legal security for the economic operators involved, to avoid unfair competition and promote innovation in the food sector.
The regulation explains that to be able to make use of a nutritional claim, it’s necessary to ensure some nutrients contents in foods for the consumer. This may be the case for dietary fibre, unsaturated fatty acids like omega-3, vitamins, minerals, etc.
In the case of health claims, according to market research the most appreciated by consumers, the regulation indicates that a previous evaluation for each declaration proposal is necessary by the European Food Safety Agency (also known as EFSA for its acronym in English).
For a statement to be accepted, it must demonstrate the beneficial effect of food on studies made with people that during some time and in a controlled way had ingested the functional food.
Health claims are grouped into different categories. The ones of "general function of health" are those that have had a greater number of proposals. The European Union initially pledged to publish a common list of statements (from more than 44.000 proposals received from Member States) before 31 January of this year. According to recent statements from the European Commission itself, this list will not be published until end of 2011 or beginning of 2012.
The regulation specifies another condition Sine qua non to be able to label the products with nutrition and health claims: the so-called nutritional profiles. Those profiles have to set limits on the sugar content, saturated fatty acids and sodium for the different types of foods (cereals, dairy, fats and oils derived from fruits, vegetables, nuts...).
The objective with the definition of those profiles is to ensure that functional foods, in addition to comply with the contents of some healthy compounds, are nutritionally acceptable as a whole. For this reason we favour certain food categories, of which exist scientific evidences of the benefit of its consumption in a healthy diet.
These profiles should be established before January 19, 2009. As per today only some drafts have appeared without a new date for their implementation. The reason of this delay may to be due to the strong pressure from some “lobbies”, not interested that the functional food market being limited to certain types of food. The controversy generated is of such magnitude that, as the words of Mr. Basil Mathioudakis, Head of Food Law Unit, Nutrition and Labelling of DG SANCO (General Direction for Health and Consumer Protection) of the European Commission: “the question is being discussed in the highest political levels”.
This delay and calendars out of position is generating a significant distortion in the functional food market. The logical and probable would have been to dispose, first of the nutrient profiles, improve the overall nutritional composition of food, and then include the health claims. On the contrary, it is easy to predict that the list of general health claims will be published without first having resolved the issue of nutrient profiles. All this generates a provisional status that certainly does not help the consumer neither the industry. Currently there are products on the shelves of the stores labelled as functional that probably won’t be from now to a time if those nutrient profiles are accepted. This lack of definition is also creating great difficulties for food businesses, particularly the SMEs, who have opted, in this field, for I + D + i.
Consequently, although hardly the nutrient profiles will be published immediately, it would be preferable that as consumers associations, public institutions and those companies that we are convinced that the way to follow is the one defined in the regulation as published at the time, we contribute our bit to make sure that in the future all the products appearing on store shelves are undoubtedly healthy and functional.