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Today we publish a guest article by Choices International Foundation, about a voluntary front of pack labeling scheme. The topic is certainly of interest since the discussion among industry, public and regulators is ongoing. Looking at recent news, Italy just a proposed a “battery” logo to challenge the most popular Nutriscore, while Netherlands might be next in line to adopt the latter scheme (recommended in France, Belgium, Spain and Germany by the competent authorities’).
Choices International Foundation
In an old advertising poster, the drawing by a child pictured while eating a bit chunk of butter stands right beside the following text: “Butter is slippery, that is why we eat as much as possible to lubricate our arteries and veins.” Nowadays this advice sounds pretty weird, but at that time it was appreciated.
Nutrition is probably one of the most hotly debated, misrepresented and distorted topics in public health. Very few people would object that cigarettes cause cancer. However, many people raise their eyebrows when they hear that the same can be consequent to eating high amounts of sugary and salty snacks. To provide dietary counselling to the general public is more complex than offering other types of lifestyle advice (e.g. physical activity, cigarette smoke, etc.).
Over the last decades, the debate about which foods are healthy has been distorted by a series of attempts to confuse the consumers’ mind. Several factors contributed to this massive exercise in mis-communication, starting from unfounded marketing campaigns (like the one about butter and arteries mentioned above), to unregulated health claims (although this is no more the case in the EU). Not to mention the growing popularity of diet gurus and diet books, which are particularly dangerous. Marketing campaigns promoting new diets usually promote the idea that official dietary guidelines are inaccurate or influenced by commercial interests, and pretend to ignore the large profits and conflict of interest they instead generate. It hurts to admit it, but some confusion was also generated by the fact that scientists are not always good at communicating their results, at least not as good as diet gurus.
Nutrition is a young science that evolved a lot during the past 25 years, particularly thanks to the advancements in nutritional epidemiology. What scientists considered unhealthy 20 years ago is now seen under different lens. An example of this is the fact that all types of fat were considered unhealthy many years ago, whereas nowadays we know that not all types of fat have equal health effects.
Everyone would probably agree that a healthy and nutritious diet is essential for disease prevention and contributes to a longer life. However, it is often difficult for the general public to discern between official and unsubstantiated dietary advice.
These are the main reasons why the Choices International Foundation developed a front-of-pack logo that could be printed on the labels of all foods identified based on simple criteria and approved by national health authorities. Similar logos exist in different countries, the Keyhole is an example from North Europe, different Healthy Choice logos are present in East-Asia. The criteria to obtain the Choices logo are based on the most recent scientific evidence and they are regularly updated every four years, by a panel of leading scientists, whose decisions cannot be influenced or manipulated by the food industry. The latter can only provide information regarding specific issues related to food manufacturing (e.g. the practical impossibility of reducing a specific ingredient below a certain threshold). This guarantees that the criteria are based on solid scientific evidence and do not serve any specific marketing purpose.
The periodical revision of criteria is an important aspect of the Choices Programme, because it allows to consider improvements in scientific knowledge and changes in the market. By making its criteria stricter over time, this program stimulates constant food product reformulations, for instance the ongoing reduction of added sugars. Also relevant is the fact the criteria should be adapted to different cultures. The Choices Programme includes four scientific committees in 4 different regions of the world.
The Choices International Foundation is a multi-stakeholder organization aiming to give its contribution to the fight against obesity by bridging leading scientists in public health, governments of various countries and front runners in the food industry.
High consumption of food rich in empty calories (i.e. providing very few nutrients but very high calories), coupled with a too low intake of nutritious foods (including fruit and vegetables) have contributed to what is usually called the “double burden of malnutrition”. The latter is the coexistence of undernutrition and NCDs (e.g. obesity, diabetes), within individuals, households and populations, across the life course.
The Choices logo is not a magic wand that will make obesity and NCDs disappear on its own. However, it certainly can help. Studies show that it helps consumers in making healthier choices, particularly low-educated ones. The Choices Programme was launched in response to the WHO’s call for the food industry to help make the healthy choice the easy choice. An independent system that is easy to interpret and supported by national governments is a step forward in this direction.
Choices International Foundation, 2019. Choices criteria
Choices International Foundation. Scientific Overview of Positive Nutrition Labelling, 2019
About the author: Rutger Schilpzand
As Executive Director of Choices International, Rutger Schilpzand supports healthy food choice initiatives, based on the Choices program, worldwide. Rutger (1953) studied Human Nutrition at Wageningen University and has worked as a freelance science writer, a campaigner for OxfamNovib and for consumer organisations. As such, he was the initiator of the Clean Clothes Foundation and member of the board of the Max Havelaar Foundation. Rutger Schilpzand is co-founder of the Ghana Schoolfeeding Programme that now serves 1.5 million meals daily to Ghanaian school kids. He has worked as a strategic consultant in nutrition at Schuttelaar & Partners, where he initiated two business units with 1M € annual turnover. In 2005 he initiated the Future of Food seminars initiative, a series of international high level seminars about future developments in the global food system. Rutger is co-author of “De strategische Stakeholderdialoog”, the first study into experiences and expectations from business and with stakeholder dialogue in the Netherlands.
(Disclaimer: the post has purely informative purpose. This is not paid advertising and Food Law Latest has not any vested interest in promoting the Choices Internationl Foundation programme).