Food labels could turn Europeans healthier – and greener

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The European is an ambitious plan to turn the 27 countries of the European Union into paragons of eco-friendliness and sustainability.

Chief among the EU’s goals is its “Farm to Fork Strategy” (F2F), which seeks to phase out the use of harmful pesticides, make farming more organic, create more sustainable food supply chains and protect biodiversity.

Yet it isn’t just the environment that should benefit from the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy. The consumer, too, should see improvements through changes in their diets. Healthier diets, research has shown, are also more environmentally friendly.

“Reversing the rise in overweight and obesity rates across the EU by 2030 is critical,” the EU notes. “Moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables will reduce not only risks of life‑threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.”

Healthy diet, healthy environment
In 2017 alone, as many as 950,000 people in the EU died of causes attributable to unhealthy diets, mainly cardiovascular diseases and cancers, according to estimates. Simply put, many people on the continent eat too much and of the wrong type of food.

To help consumers adopt both healthier and more sustainable diets, the European Commission wants to enable them to make more informed choices by help of mandatory nutrition labelling. The labels could include such details as a food item’s nutritional value and the environmental costs of its production.

Red meat, for instance, can have adverse health effects if consumed regularly in large quantities. On top of that, the production of beef and dairy is a major drain on environmental resources. There are some 1.5 billion cows on earth and large areas of agricultural land had to be created to support them – often at the expense of wildlife-rich areas from Brazil to Australia.

That’s why the F2F Strategy explicitly calls for a “harmonised mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling to enable consumers to make health conscious food choices”. While a number of labelling options exist, Nutri-Score, promoted by France, and Italy’s Nutrinform have emerged as the front-runners in the European debate.

Front-runners: Nutri-Score and Nutrinform
Nutri-score, a nutrition label created by the French public health agency (Santé Publique France), has been endorsed by several European governments, even as points of criticism about the system’s efficacy have been identified. Foremost among them is the fact that Nutri-Score’s grading system favours high-protein foods, regardless whether they are highly processed or unsustainably produced. Contrary to the European Green Deal’s intent, such bias may nudge consumers to eat more meat, rather than less, which in turn only exacerbates the environmental problems associated with large-scale cattle farming.

The Italian alternative, Nutrinform, was inspired by South European fears that Nutri-Score would unduly penalize the traditional “Mediterranean diet”, which features many fatty foods such as olive oil and fish. Based on the food pyramid method of consuming all food groups in appropriate quantities, Nutrinform uses a charging “battery” to visualise the nutrient content of foods, where the charged portion represents the percentage of that nutrient in the product as compared to the EU’s daily recommended intake.

Proponents of this approach argue that by representing information through average portion sizes and as percentages of recommended intakes, the system incentives a more balanced diet, in line with environmental and personal health goals.

Rethinking food production
The EU’s initiative is a largely unprecedented step, and particularly important in the context of rising global demand for animal protein as ever more countries, particularly in Asia, are developing a taste for beef. But with each cow producing up to 120 kilograms of methane, industrial-scale cattle farming greatly exacerbates the amount of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere – to the tune of 2 billion metric tons of CO2 annually.

Add to this the massive requirement for land to produce animal feed – we could soon see an increase of 80% in animal feed production owing to increased beef demand – and it stands to reason that things cannot continue as they have until now.

That food labels can make a valuable difference is undisputed, even if it’s unclear which label will eventually be the preferred option across the EU. Given that these labels contain purely nutritional information and no environmental detail, another label to display the environmental impact of a certain food item could be added to the mix as well.

In the end, whatever form the EU’s final label will take, the grouping is taking a step in the right direction. By making wiser decisions about dietary choices and the environmental impacts of those choices, Europeans can make a difference both to themselves and their planet.