Is all European food good enough to be considered healthy?
This newly adopted motion for a resolution drafted by Santiago Fisas Ayxela MEP (EPP, ES) from the European Parliament (EP) Committee on Culture and Education calls for improved food literacy among the European population through full realisation of cultural and educational aspects of the European gastronomic heritage. The report makes strong links between food and nutrition, education and health-related issues, notably poor-diet related non-communicable diseases (NCDs). However, it also aims to promote "responsible drinking", taking pleasure from the taste of "quality European wines". In fact, it urges us to consider whether all traditional European foods and beverages can be responsibly claimed to support good health outcomes.
The document strongly links to several European impacting policy initiatives, such as the World Health Organization’s Report on Food and Nutrition Policy for Schools, the Commission’s White Paper of 30 May 2007 on ’A Strategy for Europe on nutrition, overweight and obesity related health issues’ and the WHO European Ministerial Conference on Nutrition and Non-communicable Diseases in the Context of Health 2020.
This European Parliament’s motion is welcome given: (1) the alarming rate of growing poor diet-related chronic and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), certain types of cancer, diabetes type-2, overweight and obesity (including among the child population, the poorest and socially excluded population groups); 2) the underrated correlation between food, nutrition, the food system and supply chain, sustainability and the health of our planet.
The present and future health and well-being of the population is determined by nutrition and diet, which in turn is influenced by the environment in which it is produced and the methods of food production. It is worth seriously considering educating European citizens on aspects of food from the earliest age- provided this task is entrusted to competent, transparent and public-accountable authorities. It is not uncommon that food, nutritional and health educational activities are pursued by the food and drink manufacturers and multinationals, whose main objective is to protect the interests of their shareholders, not necessarily the health of the consumers. This is why we support calls on Member States to ensure that all advertising and sponsorship of junk food is banned at school (possibly by means of laws rather than self-regulation). Additionally, EU Member States should ensure that teachers are properly trained, in collaboration with nutritionists and doctors, to teach food sciences correctly in educational settings.
This motion rightly put an emphasis on nutrition and diet-related factors, such as affordability, accessibility, availability, advertising and marketing, and links those to economic, social and health inequalities. It is concerned with the ’invasion’ of highly processed foods and beverages, frequently high in fats (trans- and saturated), salt and (added)sugars (HFSS) as a threat to local and traditional products (and farming), European culinary and cultural heritage.
The text makes an explicit reference to the Mediterranean diet and notes that the Nordic diet might offer some additional benefits.
We are concerned, indeed, by the fact that this motion attempts to portray ’appropriate consumption patterns’ of alcohol (EU strategy to support EU member states in reducing alcohol-related harm (COM(2006)0625)) as being part of a healthy lifestyle or having health-beneficial effects. We believe a recommendation stating that at educational settings "programmes should be offered with a view to providing education about and raising awareness of, the consequences of inappropriate alcohol consumption, and encouraging proper and intelligent consumption patterns, thanks to an understanding of the special characteristics of wines, their geographical indications (GI), grape varieties, production processes and the meaning of traditional terms" can be only effective if such measures are integrated in a wider and coherent systemic framework with appropriate pricing, stricter advertising and labelling regulations. In fact, a ’Wine in Moderation’ initiative, which promotes a lifestyle and a level of alcohol consumption associated with moderation when offered in isolation is highly unlikely to benefit public health. In order to effectively target alcohol related harm, the EU should build on the knowledge of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Best Buys- a recognised set of well established, effective and cost effective public health interventions for alcohol policy. Recently, EPHA and Eurocare issued these recommendations for the New EU Action Plan on Alcohol and presented a thorough analysis of the strategy that was adopted.
Furthermore, while there is a clearly established link between health benefits and the consumption of traditional plant-based foods including fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains, we need to consider that the concept of traditional, local and regional products may also promote products high in salt, saturated fats, sugars and alcohol - consumption of which has been broadly agreed to be discouraged. By these we would specifically mean, for example, animal proteins from red meat or dairy products (on average, the European population overconsumes proteins of animal origin), wine and beer - one might argue considered a part of our ’European cultural and gastronomic heritage’. This means that a careful selection of products to be promoted should be included in the text, to avoid a situation such as has been seen with the current operation of the EU Policy for the Promotion of Agricultural Products (programme ’Taste of Europe’) which funds initiatives aimed to promote fruit and vegetables, vegetable oils, organic products, but also large number of meat products.
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