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Food in Europe: Green, Orange or Red Light?

We all know the moment when someone asks us at the end of the year whether we have New Year’s resolutions or not. By now, you probably have figured out if you do and if yes, then what your goals are. Most people’s list will look something like being more organized, being more punctual, going to the gym more often, save money, sleep longer, etc. Often there is also a bullet point saying ‘eating healthier’; but what does it actually mean? Nowadays, big firms want us to believe that their product is the best on the market and that we have to buy it in order to be happy, and most of the time their strategy works. But is what they are saying true or is it just a sophisticated marketing strategy to make consumers buy their product? Especially in the food-sector, it is important for the consumer to know what they are buying.


Often when you go into the grocery shop, you see a lot of products labeled as ‘reduced-sugar’,  ‘low-fat’, or ‘wholegrain’. Other capitalized percentages or numbers of vitamins, healthy fats, etc. are made visible at the front, whereas the amount of sugar, salt, etc. is written in small at the back. These products, therefore, seem healthy and perfect for your New Years resolutions! However, should you trust it?

Many people are not aware of what is what they are buying, which is a problem in Europe nowadays. Regardless of New Year’s resolutions, many people try and want to eat healthily, but do not because of these ‘traps’. Obesity is often a consequence of malnutrition and one of the main health problems nowadays. In Europe, it is estimated that over 20% of people are obese. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that 1 out of 3 children under 11 years is overweight in the WHO Europe-region. Especially for children, it is crucial to have the right nutrition in order to grow properly. Many governments in Europe have tried to address this problem and the European Parliament started promoting the idea several years ago of a ‘traffic light’ system, which indicates how much fat, sugar, and salt a product has with the colours red (high), orange (medium) and green (low) per 100g or ml, at the front of the product. However, the food-industry was and still is against this system. Sales of multinational companies such as Nestlé and Mondelez would decrease a lot, so the EU-proposal was rejected. After a lot of debates and arguments, the food-industry won this battle in June 2010. Yet, a new regulation was introduced in December 2016 that the ‘big 7’ nutrients (energy, fats, saturated fats, carbs, salt, sugar, and protein ) had to obligatory be written per 100g or ml somewhere on the product.

As doctors, health insurances, and consumer organisations continued urging the problem after the rejection, the food-industry suggested an alternative. Their idea is a ‘traffic light’ system, which indicates the amount of fat, sugar, and salt not per 100g or ml, but per serving. In the initially proposed system, a food would have a red light for fat as of 20g per 100g, sugar as of 12,5g, and salt as of 1,5g. However, with the proposed system of serving-based indications, the limited amounts would be lower, indicating that products are healthier than what they actually are. For example, at a serving of 60g, the alternative would only have a red light when there are more than 13,5g of sugar inside, while the initial limit would be 7,5g. The question about this newly proposed system is if this is positively or negatively affecting consumers’ health.

Whether this newly proposed system will be implemented by the EU or not is currently debated. However, many medical associations and other stakeholders are worried this new proposal is no better than the current situation. The firms will most probably have smaller servings than an average person would consume and therefore the traffic light will mostly be green or orange, whereas it should in most cases be red. This will then disguise the unhealthy products, and therefore not reduce, but rather contribute to the obesity problem. When companies have different quantities per serving, it is also more difficult to compare different products. Many consumers will not be aware of this problem and eat unhealthy products, while thinking they eat healthy. Eating Nutella or sugary cereals is not unhealthy, but a person needs to be aware of the amount they eat. If for example, Nutella gets a green light for the amount of salt and orange lights for sugar and fat, while the cracker ‘Tuc’ gets orange for all three of the categories, people might eat more Nutella than Tuc, because Nutella has one green light. Although in this newly proposed system Nutella seems healthier, one has to remember that the new system is per portion. While the Nutella serving is 15g, Tuc has a serving of 30g. In the actual ‘traffic-light’ system (per 100g), Nutella would be unhealthier than Tuc. Therefore, the system is confusing consumers and leading them into a trap.

Regardless of all of these suggested systems, the most important thing is that you know what you eat. Whether you want to eat a lot of salt, fat, or little sugar is your decision. The ‘traffic light’ system is just a concept which can help you direct your diet in a healthier direction, because it makes you more conscious about what you give to your body. If you take this information into account or ignore it is then up to you!

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