Jury still out on nutritional profiling

Junk food has long presented a conundrum to health policy makers. Is it better to educate consumers about better diet choices or to fortify crisps and chips with vitamins and other nutrients? Pragmatists point to the ?globesity? epidemic as proof the education approach is not working and therefore advocate nutrient fortification of foods high in fats, sugars and salt. It?s a lesser-evil kind of concept. So while Snickers rolls out a hyper-fortified chocolate bar and Viactiv couches a full day?s supply of calcium in chocolate and some potato crisps have all the calcium of a glass of milk, some consumer groups and government bodies are calling for healthier solutions.

The UK Food Standards Agency position is that vitamins and minerals should not be added to foods containing high levels of fats, salts or sugars. Their list of fortified ?junk? includes a range of cereals as well as some beverages and bars — nearly all of which are explicitly marketed to children. European Union proposals on health claims and fortified foods that have been debated over recent years have toyed with nutritional profile restrictions but a position has not been formally adopted. The US is not in favour of these kinds of restrictions, and there are few as long as the added nutrients have at least GRAS approval.

?If reasonable fortification is something that attracts people for health reasons, there shouldn?t be a downside to it,? said Annette Dickinson, PhD, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition. ?It makes sense to fortify whatever people eat.?

Reacting to demand for healthier products, the global food industry has responded with measures such as removing or limiting trans fats and boosting fibre content, while regulatory bodies mull improved labelling and health claim schemes to better communicate the nutritional value of foods and beverages to consumers.

?One of the major premises of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is that food label statements have to be truthful and not misleading. So to say a cheese snack that?s fortified with calcium is an excellent source of calcium would be truthful,? said Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy at the US National Food Processors Association.

?If that product happens to exceed a certain fat level, it would be required to disclose, ?See nutrition Facts Panel for fat content.? So it?s all about wrapping the contextual pieces together.?

Others in the mainstream food business have noted that adding sugars, fats or salt to processed fruit, vegetables and grain products helps to improve palatability and can promote their consumption in the context of well-balanced, calorie-controlled diets.

Another aspect of the debate is housing supplements in candied delivery systems. Dickinson maintains this is not a food but merely a supplement. ?A food is a very different product from something that?s mostly nutrients and a little calories,? she said.

Earl invoked the ?jelly bean rule? — which means products cannot bear health claims if they are not inherently healthy. So a candied supplement may be classified as a dietary supplement encased in a tasty delivery system, in which case structure/function claims may apply.

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