The European Commission Group on Nutrition and Physical Activity is a high-level group covering all matters related to nutrition and physical activity for tackling obesity in children. They’re creating frameworks to address the health problems endemic in every country in the Western world. As health professionals, we’re delighted.
Government representatives from all EU countries, plus Norway and Switzerland, attend the group. The UK government is represented by the Department of Health.
The driver for the obesity problem to be taken seriously at last? The ever-growing drain on economies caused by obesity-related health problems: from the cost of healthcare provision to increasing numbers of sick days taken by workers.
Meeting at least three times a year, they share experiences and strategies for tackling obesity. To date, they have published an EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity for 2014-2020, aiming to reduce exposure of foods with high saturated fat, sugars and salt (HFSS), as well as increasing exercise.
They’ve also set frameworks that can be taken up by any country on reformulation of commercial products, focusing on reductions in HFSS. Food categories currently under review are:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Sweetened dairy and dairy imitates
- Breakfast cereals
- Bread and bread products
- Bakery products (for example cakes and cookies)
- Ready meals (including ready to prepare products like dry soups, dried mashed potatoes, rice mixture)
- Savoury snacks
- Sauces (including ketchup)
- Sugars sweetened desserts, ice cream and topping
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- School food offer
- Catering meals
Interestingly, baby foods are not yet covered, although it would not be a surprise if this is the next step once Public Health England’s (PHE) sugar reduction strategy for this category gets under way end of this year.
The EU-specific Commercial Food Reformulation Framework for Added Sugars is set – and is really a reflection of the PHE’s sugar reduction strategy:
- They have proposed benchmarks for each of the above food categories.
- They have recommended that countries set an added sugars reduction benchmark of a minimum of 10% by 2020 (vs. 2015 baseline levels).
- They have used the same definition for ‘added sugars’ as PHE, including fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate and fruit purees.
The frameworks are guidelines with minimum requirements, rather than exact rules every country is bound to. This makes sense – countries can choose to apply them as appropriate, taking into consideration different consumer attitudes to food and nutrients.
So, for example, in the UK, the first nine food categories to come under the sugar reduction targets also used 2015 data as baseline, but we went to 5% reductions by year one and 20% reductions by year 2020.
The Group next meets at the end of the month, with an evolved nutrition labelling initiative one of the points on the agenda. Major multi-national companies are on board, including The Coca-Cola Company, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever.
Let’s hope that what comes out of it actually makes an impact, that it’s not just words no one follows up on. We’re certainly moving in the right direction.