The discussion about what front labeling or FoP should be like Front-of-Pack), which summarizes the nutritional information of processed foods so that they can be compared at a glance, takes time to discuss. The EU agreed eight years ago to insert in the packaging, mandatory, the energy value and the amounts of fats, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins and salt of packaged foods (per 100 grams or milliliters). But it left the option to each State, and even to the industry, to develop its own scheme, voluntary for the manufacturers, to synthesize this data as a warning on the front of the container.
The result: many models, and none perfect. "The essential thing is that any system is developed under strict criteria and supported scientifically," says Emma Calvet, responsible for food policy in the European consumer organization Beuc. In your opinion, the EU should adopt a mandatory scheme if you want your citizens to "make healthier decisions at a glance".
But the industry does not always think the same. The lobby European Food Drink Europe sees the need for greater coordination between States, although it advocates that the system remains voluntary. "A harmonized scheme is desirable in order not to confuse the consumer or create barriers to trade," says Enrico Frabetti, director of food policies for the Spanish employers' association of FIAB manufacturers. "Although I do not think it will be a decisive factor against obesity," he says.
At present, different systems proliferate inside and outside the EU. France has developed the Nutriscore, a color code associated with letters that goes from green to red according to an algorithm that assesses saturated fats, sugar, salt, calories, fiber and proteins per 100 grams of product. United Kingdom has its nutritional semaphore and the Scandinavian countries the keyhole, a stamp that is also assigned to fresh foods that meet certain parameters. The European Commission, for its part, plans to publish a report in the spring that analyzes the different schemes used in the EU.
Also six large multinationals designed their system, the nutritional labeling evolved, and they were about to launch it in several European countries. Nutritionists and consumer associations considered it inappropriate because instead of being based on 100 gram rations, it referred to standard portions, defined by the same industry. They announced their retreat last November, a few days after the Spanish Ministry of Health made public its intention to implement the Nutriscore.
According to the Spanish Society of Endocrinologists and Nutritionists, this system of letters and colors is not a panacea either. "It allows you to compare foods from the same group to choose the healthiest option, but it does not serve to make a general list of foods in which all those who obtain the same letter are comparable for their nutritional quality," he warns.
José María Ferrer, head of the legal department of Ainia, warns that nutritional semaphores can, in certain cases, generate distortions. "For example, it may be that olive oil is assigned a red because of the high amount of fat and that a consumer would think it is terrible, when it is the opposite," he explains. Olive oil has been Recently object of a hoax in London, according to which the British capital had prohibited advertising it on the subway and in public places as part of its strategy against childhood obesity.
The Spanish Ministry of Health already in November stopped the controversies by ensuring that it will not apply the new labeling to this product. Victorio Teruel, of the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition, confirmed this week in a congress of Aecoc that the Administration is negotiating with France (the Nutriscore is a registered trademark) how to adapt the system to the Mediterranean diet. He also defended that front labeling should be mandatory and harmonized in the EU. The problem is that, at the moment, there is no unanimity between Member States. "That is why we are also waiting for the report of the Commission," said Teruel, who assured that soon the public consultation will open about the draft of the Spanish standard project.
The traps of the mind
The front labeling is added to a long list of nutritional descriptions, some regulated and others not, which are spaced from the classic Light the most confusing home or natural. María Galli, researcher at Esade on consumer behavior, lived in her skin how difficult it is to cope with all this information. Mother of a diabetic child, when she moved to Spain she quickly realized that, whatever the claims printed on the packaging say, one must spend time reading the fine print, something that is not always possible.
Galli explains that the frontal labeling would become a good ally for the consumer as long as they contain a very summary information, given that our brain is very lazy. And, still, nothing is guaranteed. He explains that an experiment in Chile on the front labeling of four products – biscuits, chocolates and sweets, juices and cereals – gave an unexpected result: the consumption of juice and cereals decreased, but the biscuits and chocolate remained stable. "Consumers were already aware of the damage caused by sweets, but they believed that juice and cereals were healthier", concludes Galli.
The researcher also warns that some groups of consumers could reach an equivalence between the green light of Nutriscore, which always refers to processed products, and fresh ones. "It is a risk and it is a problem, because it is very easy to create associations and very difficult to break them."
The European Commission, for its part, plans to publish a report in the spring that analyzes the different schemes used in the EU.