Food labelling in Europe: Comfort food at risk?

It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Europe’s newly locked down population. As the virus continues to spread at a rapid clip, countries from the Netherlands to Poland are enforcing stay-at-home orders once again. Epidemiologists predict that the virus is here to stay; despite promising news on the vaccine front, the chances of getting a critical mass of the population effectively vaccinated in the next year are slim.

The well-documented impacts of isolation are driving mental health experts’ fears that a renewed confinement entails a heavy toll on the morale of Europeans. After a summer of relative freedom, Europe has been suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue’ since October. According to one recent study, the number of Europeans with a self-proclaimed “bad state of mind” has tripled to reach 23% during the crisis; in Spain, 8 out 10 people considered seeking professional help for emotional problems, while 33% of Germans experienced a deterioration in their mental health and Italians saw the worst decline in their mental health of all European countries.

Food for thought

But it’s not all bad news. A healthy lifestyle through balanced diet, adequate sleep and exercise is reported to be helping many with the stress of the pandemic. Indeed, diet has a huge effect on our mental health, since 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. With food establishments closed, Europeans are cooking for themselves more than ever before.

Confined to hearth and home, the kitchen has become crucial to physical and mental survival. The term ‘comfort food’ is bandied around as a means of coping with lockdowns across the continent but its mental health benefits are very real. One psychologist explains that “when we think about… comfort food, we tend to think about it as providing calories or warmth or a sense of well-being. But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us.” The consumption of favourite foods is, as it turns out, an essential survival tactic.

When choosing what to eat, front-of-pack nutrition labels could soon become an important resource for consumers. Indeed, a French study recently determined that the European Union could reduce nutrition-related deaths by more than 3% annually with mandatory front-of-pack labelling. As part of the Farm to Fork Strategy published earlier this year, the EU is under pressure to decide upon an efficient Europe-wide nutrition-labelling policy from a number of options currently in use in various EU countries. Until recently, the favourite had been the French-sponsored scheme Nutri-score, which uses an algorithm to assign a letter (from A-E) and a colour (from green to red) to a particular foodstuff based on five nutritional subsets.

Coca Cola gets the green light

The Nutri-Score system seems perfectly simple, but Nutri-score’s normative view of foods as red-bad versus green-good is considered scientifically dubious by its critics, not least because it suggests that certain food choices are wrong. With an alleged anti-fat bias, some prominent nutritionists fear Nutri-score distorts the way Europeans choose what to eat. Fats are an important macronutrient in many comfort foods, as well as traditional cuisines such as the Mediterranean diet; the consumption of fats in moderation has proven health benefits not only for the body but also for the brain.

Indeed, a 2017 study discovered that when a Mediterranean-style diet – one rich in vegetables, fruits, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil – was supplemented with fish oil, depression rates in participants went down by 25%-35%. Since Nutri-score does not take into consideration the quantity of the product that one person would consume, olive oil receives a yellow score for its fat content per 100 millilitres – the same score given to tomato ketchup – while Coca Cola Zero is awarded a light-green B grade.

No surprise, then, that detractors criticise the Nutri-score scheme for favouring processed products whose makeup can be modified in order to achieve a better score on the scale. A number of food manufacturing giants are already backing the scheme, adapting formulas in order to improve their Nutri-score grades.

In light of growing concerns the Nutri-score scheme is biased against fundamental aspects of the Mediterranean diet, which have been scientifically proven to reduce obesity and prolong life expectancy, Italian nutritionists and policymakers have proposed an alternative which is now gaining traction. The ‘NutrInform’ system put forward by Italy illustrates the quantities of calories, fats, sugar and salt in a single serving by way of contextualising battery symbols.

This ‘Made in Italy’ candidate, argue proponents, demonstrates nutritional values without grading the product, thereby helping consumers to make informed choices without imputing its own value judgements. Italy certainly has a leg to stand on: the country boasts one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe and has the sixth highest life expectancy in the world. The peninsula knows a thing or two about healthy eating, even if Italians are known to consume a ‘dolce’ from time to time.

Six European countries with similar concerns, including the Czech Republic, Greece, Latvia, Hungary, Cyprus and Romania, have now banded together with Italy against Nutri-score. The coalition submitted a so-called non-paper to the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council in September which called for “factual information on the individual nutrients contained in a product, in order to make sure that each consumer can choose according to his or her particular conditions and state of health”.

Europe is a melting pot of cooking cultures and eating habits, and any front-of-pack system the EU adopts needs to take this into account. At a time when mental and physical health are under constant attack, a healthy balance of nutritious and comfort foods will help maintain the mood of beleaguered Europeans. Rather than negatively labelling those who seek comfort from their favourite fare, a growing chorus of EU governments insist consumers must be shown the entire picture in order to make informed choices. As the original doctor Hippocrates wrote, “Let food be thy medicine.”

Image credit: tracy benjamin/Flickr

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