The new EU law on food information to consumers ((EU) No 1169/2011) making it compulsory to provide nutrition information is officially applying as of 13 December 2016, two years after the regulation entered into application (on 13 December 2014).
What are the labelling requirements and how do they compare to the recently announced US label, which will be in place from 2018 onwards? And how will the UK fit into the scenario following Brexit?
Similarly to the US, the regulation mostly applies to all pre-packaged food and is based on international standards set up by the Codex Alimentarius. The EU regulation specifies that energy, protein, fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, and salt must be on all labels of food sold in the EU (regardless of whether it is produced within or outside EU territories). More details on monounsaturated fats, fibre and/or vitamins and minerals can voluntarily be provided, but must also conform to standards. For example, vitamins can be included as long as they are listed in Annex XIII to EU FIC and are present in significant amounts. In addition, further information on the ingredients, origin of food, allergens and additives present must be listed as per requirements. Front of pack labelling remains voluntary; however if included, it must be in the format of per 100g of 100ml as a minimum, per serving, or both.
The US: Focus on calories and serving sizes
Similarly to the EU, the US has also given manufacturers two years to change their nutrition labels so that they are in line with new legislation by 2018. The FDA claims that the current label is over 20 years old and the new one is based on “updated scientific information, new nutrition and public health research, more recent dietary recommendations from expert groups, and input from the public.” In addition to the already required information on calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates, sugars and salt, one of the new mandatory components of the label is ‘added sugar’.
These past couple of years have certainly been sugar focused in the nutrition world; starting with the WHO 2015 recommendation to limit all free sugar consumption to less than 10% of daily calories, followed by the SACN press release on carbohydrates and health, this year’s UK announcement of the sugar tax and ending with the WHO urging all governments to apply a minimum 20% sugar tax on all sugary drinks in September.
The US is the first country to implement such a requirement for added sugar content on nutrition labels, but it will, undoubtedly, not be the last. With ever increasing regulations and recommendations regarding sugar, public health bodies, consumers and even manufacturers are in desperate need of this sort of information. Despite growing evidence, there is no systematic way of discriminating between added sugars (or free sugars)* and the intrinsic ones (such as lactose). Regulations, such as the anticipated one in the US, will let consumers make better choices, but also help public health bodies make more informed decisions on recommendations around sugar. This may also mean categories with high amounts of both intrinsic and added (and therefore ambiguous) sugars, such as flavoured milk drinks/yoghurts, baked goods or ready meals, will be under more scrutiny.
There will also be two additional prominent changes to the US label. Firstly, nutrient content will be provided per serving of product, and secondly, the serving will be revised and amended appropriately, to be more representative of actual eating habits. Anyone else split their box of granola into 17 portions? The new label should duly clarify the nutrient content per typical (or more realistic) portion of one’s favourite cereal, which is probably about three times the recommended amount.
Will the UK brexit from the new EU labelling regulation?
In a time of change, it does not help that it is hinged with a time of uncertainty. Following Brexit, the UK will no longer have to conform to EU labelling regulations, but whether the country will simply chose to is another matter. Given that good nutrition is currently a big focus in the UK, it may take on a more comprehensive nutrition labelling structure, such as the one in the US. This would not only help the UK keep better track of the sugar content of food sold in the UK, but also help in furthering legislation around sugar, similar to the sugar levy on soft drinks. Nevertheless, the UK will inevitably need to combine aspects of both labels. For example, the EU has specific requirements regarding the naming of food additives or flavourings (such as E415 for xantham gum), which on the other hand is not accepted in the US. This means that in order for UK-based products to be sold in both markets, the country will somehow need to conform to both regulations.
The UK might have to marry both continents for the best results
Food labelling has been in place for decades, but never has it been so complex, or under so much scrutiny as it is today. Good nutrition is a major component of health, and a growing awareness around it is leading to more focus on nutrition transparency and education. Both the EU and US are making changes to their labelling, but perhaps one is making more progress than the other. How the UK will fit into this duet is currently uncertain, but for the best results, the country might just have to marry the two together.
*According to the FDA, added sugars are “sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100% fruit or vegetable juice of the same type”. The WHO defines free sugars as “monosaccharides (such as glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to food and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates”.