Monday, November 14, 2011

The healthy chocolate doughnut?

More and more people want to make healthy choices in terms of the food they eat, but when deciding which food should go in the shopping trolley it can get a bit confusing. A certain brand of breakfast cereal might be 'fortified with vitamins and iron' but actually contain around 40% sugar. And a 'low fat' brand of crackers might actually be extremely high in salt. Then, of course, you have the foods that 'boost your immune system' or 'lower your cholesterol', but can these claims be trusted?

That is why MEPs and European governments agreed the Health Claims Regulation, which should ensure that all the claims you see on food are scientifically verified. The European Food Safety Authority is currently assessing the huge amount of claims manufacturers want to use, and have so far found that only around 20% have a sound scientific basis and should be allowed. The rest will soon be illegal, which just goes to show how many unfounded and misleading claims exist on the market.

Another part of the regulation was to ensure that health claims were not used on foods that are, on balance, unhealthy. This involves setting limits on the amount of fat, saturates, sugar and salt that can be in a product bearing a health claim. However, we are still waiting for the European Commission to come forward with these maximum amounts. In the meantime we could have manufacturers marketing a chocolate doughnut as 'healthy' because of the fibre it contains, or vitamins that have been added to it. I have been calling for these maximum limits to be set for years, but in a recent exchange of letters with the Commission it is clear that there is still no concrete date.

In the meantime shoppers should make use of consumer-friendly schemes such as the traffic light system used in many supermarkets which allows you to see how high or low a product is in fat, saturates, salt and sugar at a glance. Unfortunately, for the timebeing, some of these health claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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