A food industry initiative launched this year is promoting one standard, easily recognisable symbol to aid identification of healthy foods across the world and encourage manufacturers to reformulate products along healthier lines.
The Choices International Foundation was formally founded this July year by Campina, Freisland Foods and Unilever. Its Choices Programme is a front-of-pack symbol for healthy food products.
The Dutch founding companies had been working on a labelling scheme to make healthy food choices more apparent to consumers since 2006, when the Health Minister told industry that either it come up with a scheme, or he would impose legislation.
The foundation now has 70 partners in The Netherlands, from all levels of the food industry, including manufacturers, retailers and caterers, and the stamp appears on 1,500 products. But international roll out is already underway, since Choices launched in Belgium last week with five partners (and more expected next year), and will kick off in Poland with four partners next year.
Interest has also been piqued from the food industry in Chile, South Africa and Asia.
A number of different labelling schemes have already been devised by industry and retailers across Europe and the world. Jup van 't Veld, secretary of Choices International, told FoodNavigator.com that the organisation would like to avoid this scenario, and the confusion it could engender, as much as possible.
Rather, he would prefer to see one credible, reliable and science-based scheme that is applicable the world over.
On the other hand, however, the founding companies do see scope for a complementary approach with some other schemes - particularly those that are text-based, such as the CIAA guidance daily amount (GDA) scheme.
This scheme, he explained, involves supplying objective information on all products, and applies to all foods.
The Choices symbol, on the other hand, applies only to foods that meet certain qualifying criteria. This means it can be used as an easy, visual way to flag up healthy choices, without consumers having to peer closely at the small print and make value judgements for themselves.
The criteria upon which the Choices scheme is based are drawn up by a scientific committee, and an accredited certifying agency evaluates whether products are eligible to bear the stamp.
Van 't Veld explained that the starting point for the criteria is World Health Organisation guidelines nutrients that have a very direct relations with obesity and chronic diseases: saturated fat, trans fatty acids, sodium and added sugar.
While content of these govern the generic qualifying criteria, these are cross referenced with beneficial nutrient categories, such as dietary fibre.
"The idea is to limit intake of problem nutrients, and ensure intake of beneficial nutrients."
The committee recognises, however, that it can be impossible to meet all the criteria on generic criteria, due to technical or taste reasons. For instance, a packaged soup product with low salt levels would be unpalatable to consumers.
In such cases, the levels are adjusted and a best in class approach, for the healthiest 10 per cent of products, is adopted.
When it comes to basic food group like bread and dairy that significantly contribute to daily intake of beneficial nutrients, the criteria are even more flexible and the 20 per cent best in class are deemed applicable for the Choices stamp.
Over time, it is expected that the specific criteria will become stricter, as the food industry is stimulated to innovate. But if the goalposts are too far in the first instance, they will prove too prohibitive and reform will not come about.
The Choices criteria are to be reviewed every two years, with the first review scheduled for 2008 by "a very international panel". This means that they will be able to take account of the new scientific insights, technical developments and changes in consumer preferences.
Moreover, once products are on the market, an independent auditing company checks composition and on-pack information. A science-led programme evaluates the scheme's effects on consumer awareness, purchasing behaviour, sales, product reformulation and innovation by industry, and the impact on diet and health.
Other visual schemes, such as the traffic light labelling scheme devised by the UK's Food Standards Agency, have been criticised for the criteria that underpin them. The traffic light scheme, for instance, uses a nutrient profiling that detractors have claimed is unscientific.
In fact, the European Commission is expected to come up with a proposal on nutritional labelling for the EU soon, but van 't Veld he does not expect this to limit the possibilities for the Choices scheme.
"There is still much development in the field, and we are looking for the right way," he said.
Last month Choices International co-hosted a Café Crossfire debate in Brussels with friends of Europe. Following this event, Cees 't Hart, chairman of the foundation, said that the food industry has a key responsibility in fighting obesity by improving products and helping consumers identify healthy choices.
"Credibility and measuring effectiveness are crucial," he said.
Basil Mathioudakis, responsible for food law and nutrition at DG Sanco reportedly praised the programme as an integrated approach that is consistent with the European Commission's views set out in its White Paper on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity related health issues.
Tackling obesity is recognised as requiring a multi-level approach that also includes educational efforts and promotion of exercise, whether by schools, health care practitioners or at a government levels.