Diet by its very nature is diverse. But the “good diet” relies upon a universal base: it must be balanced and provide a calorie intake regulated, if necessary, by physical activity. There is no bad diet. There are only bad dietary habits.
It should also be noted that the more we stigmatize obesity, the more it grows. Like smoking, obesity is a societal issue first and foremost. While it is true that obesity can have a genetic or pathological origin, overweightness (of which obesity is the most extreme kind) is more often the result of bad diet, an overly sedentary lifestyle and limited buying power. Faced with obesity, two approaches are possible: education or regulation. It is regrettable to see that educating the consumer has moved into the background, in favour of many firm or strongly suggestive measures regarding the composition of food items. The only problem – but a significant one – is the deceptive nature of the measures being put forward.
For a long time, EU legislation has regulated claims when they are guided by marketing concerns. But what has been done is insufficient as long as the nutritional messages printed in large characters on the front of packaging are contradicted by the list of ingredients written in very small (and often illegible) letters on the back of the product. Let’s take the following example, one of the best: “Thanks to new technologies, this chocolate bar contains 30% less sugar.” From this, the consumer would instantly deduce: “30% less calories.” Not at all: a reformulation of the recipe would tell us that the calorie reduction is limited to 3% since sugar also represents a mass that has to be replaced, and of course this additional mass is not exempt from calories.
Over the past decade, the European Union has made efforts to provide a systematic framework for the reformulation of products. This framework is extremely complex, involving a High Level Group on Nutrition and Human Health composed of Member State representatives. In 2011 this High Level Group adopted an EU framework for national initiatives relating to certain nutrients. This EU system aims to establish an enhanced level of co-operation between Member States with a view to reducing certain nutrients (until now, salt, saturated fats and added sugars). The goal of this co-operation is to set a benchmark of -10% for added sugars by 2020.
Here we are in a system which we could call non-obligatory but nonetheless compelling, in that it exerts negative pressure on a series of products and industries without providing a sustainable solution. As indicated previously, sugar reduction can be achieved without a corresponding reduction in the calorie intake. It also favours the use of complex recipes with extensive details on ingredients and additives to the detriment of basic products. Regarding sugar considered to be over-consumed, this ignores the fact that sugar consumption in Europe has not increased in the past 50 years and depending on the country, it is situated within the average of what we call a “balanced diet.”
We believe that this bureaucratic approach is going in the wrong direction. Too complicated, too vague, too discriminatory. In the long term, “education” has to be the key word. In the medium term, the key word has to be “dialogue.” The Farm to Fork Initiative clearly encourages this logic of dialogue from the producer to the consumer. But please let us ensure that the notion of a “healthy diet” is kept free from clichés, conventional wisdom and administrative labyrinths.