Food safety authority identifies key nutrients for public health

Intakes of energy, saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars/free sugars are too high in Europe, so reducing them in food would help to combat chronic diseases linked to unhealthy diets.

Dietary fiber and potassium intakes, however, are too low in most European adult populations, so increasing them would also contribute to improved health.

These are among the main findings of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) scientific advice related to nutrient profiling, published this week.

EFSA nutrition experts have identified the nutrients and non-nutrient food components of public-health importance for Europeans, the food groups with important roles in European diets, and scientific criteria to guide the choice of nutrients for nutrient profiling.

What’s this got to do with Farm to Fork?
As part of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission intends to propose a revision of existing legislation on the provision of food information to consumers at the end of 2022. EFSA’s scientific input will inform the Commission’s proposal alongside other evidence collected by the Commission.

The European Commission requested EFSA’s scientific advice to inform both the development of a future EU-wide system for front-of-pack nutrition labelling, and conditions for restricting nutrition and health claims on foods.

What is nutrient profiling?
This refers to the science of classifying foods according to their nutritional composition and how they can prevent disease and promote health.

Head of the Nutrition and Food Innovation unit at ESFA, Ana Afonso said:

“We would like to thank everyone who contributed feedback. Your input helped us to clarify our assessment’s scope and delineate more precisely our scientific contribution from factors outside EFSA’s remit.”

What nutrients could be considered in nutrient-profiling models?

  • Saturated fats, sodium, and added/free sugars intakes exceed dietary recommendations in most European populations and excess intakes are associated with adverse health effects;
  • Considering the high prevalence of overweight and obesity in Europe, a decrease in energy intake is of public-health importance for European populations;
  • Dietary fiber and potassium intakes are inadequate in most European adult populations and inadequate intakes are associated with adverse health effects;
  • Iron, calcium, vitamin D, folate and iodine intakes are inadequate in specific sub-populations. Therefore increasing dietary intake of these nutrients is often not sufficient to meet their needs, some foods/food groups make important contributions to their intake. These are usually addressed by national policies and/or individual advice.

Extensive engagement
The EFSA held a public consultation on the draft opinion from November 2021 to January 2022. This generated 529 comments from 83 organizations and individuals in 21 countries.

What are the main food groups contributing to European diets?

The dietary roles and relative contributions of different food groups vary across European countries owing to dietary habits and traditions.

They include starchy foods (mostly cereals and potatoes); fruits and vegetables; legumes and pulses; milk and dairy; meat and meat products; fish and shellfish; nuts and seeds; and non-alcoholic beverages, as recognized in national food-based dietary guidelines in member states.

Which food groups are recommended at national level?

National guidelines encourage consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fat-reduced milk and dairy products, fish and water.

Food products high in saturated fats, sugars and/or sodium owing to food processing are generally discouraged, even within these food categories.

National guidelines also encourage regular consumption of legumes and pulses partially replacing meat (particularly red meat and processed meat), and the consumption of vegetable oils rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (eg olive, sunflower, corn and rapeseed oils) instead of fats high in saturated (e.g. palm and coconut oils, butter and other animal fats).

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