BEUC said it had seen two ways in which additional vitamins and minerals were being exploited. Companies that failed to win a health claim - for a probiotc for example - could make the claim they wanted or another by adding vitamins and minerals. Alternatively, firms could add vitamins and minerals to disguise poor nutrition profiles.
Communications officer for BEUC, Pauline Constant, told us one example of this was Danone’s Actimel, where vitamins B6, C in France and D in France and Ireland had been added enabling the product to legally claim that it helped support the immune system, while being blocked from calling the product a probiotic under EU rules.
Firms could also add in vitamins to cover up high levels of fat, salt or sugar. BEUC said this demonstrated the need for the European Commission to set robust nutrient profiles, as required by Article 4 of the EU Health and Nutrition Regulation - something member states themselves called for at a council meeting last June.
BEUC wrote in its position paper: “Nutrient profiles help determine whether a product can bear a nutrition or health claim, depending on its nutritional profile. As such a product high in salt, sugar, fat and saturated fat would not be authorised to bear a claim since it would provide a false healthy halo to a low nutrient food.”
It gave the example of Nestlé Nesquik chocolate wafers with added calcium and multivitamins, a product first flagged by its Austrian member VKI (Verein für Konsumenterinformation) in 2013. Nestlé said it saw the addition of calcium and vitamin D for a snack with milk ingredients as positive since many children in Austria did not meet national requirements for these nutrients, according to the Austrian Nutrition Report 2012.
Nonetheless a spokesperson told us the product was no longer on sale in Austria, a move that came as part of its review of its confectionery portfolio to ensure all products adhered to the company's own nutritional profiling system for this segment. "We have decided to not allow fortification of confectionery products except for products designed to address either the 'adult wellness' or the 'children nutrition' platforms or in situations where micronutrient fortification is required by legislation. In these cases, we aim to not leverage this fortification in brand communication."
It said this was a good example of its global mission to address micronutrients fortification in confectionery and its own nutritional profiling system more broadly. Danone did not reply to our request for comment.
Too unhealthy for a health claim
Constant said if the nutrient profiles were created it would ensure that products could not claim to be low in one nutritional element while also containing substantial amounts of sugar, salt or fat. Likewise, she said this would eliminate the possibility of a product claiming to be high in fibre without also stating it is high in sugar, for example.
Nutrient profiles have been in discussion since the creation of the EU Health and Nutrition Claims Regulation (HCR) in 2006 and were due to be set by 2009.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) warned back in 2008 that a definition of ‘sugar’ still needed to be established. It also said foodstuffs that were major sources of healthy ‘qualifying’ nutrients but which also contained unhealthy ‘disqualifying’ nutrients – for example full cream milk which contains both calcium and fat – should not be penalised and prevented from bearing a claim.
Asked if it would be supportive of such a system, a spokesperson for Nestlé told us: “In a global point of view, and as you may know, Nestlé has always been supportive to the establishment of nutrient profiles for nutrition and health claims purposes. We have also our Nestlé Nutritional Profiling System.”
It said it was committed to providing its consumers with transparent nutrition information based on sound science and in a format which best helped them to make informed decisions.
In its paper BEUC said the creation of the HCR and its objective of ensuring consumers were not mislead with scientifically unfounded or exaggerated health claims was a positive move forward in consumer protection. But it warned that there was still much more to be done to harmonise and strengthen member state implementation.