Do Finns Really Like to be Obese?

Finland comes second in the race to the top to have the most obese population in Europe, after the UK. So you would think that this skiing, skating (Gold in the 2022 Winter Olympics for Ice Hockey), running nation would love to have a simple science-based labelling system to avoid the wrong food… but no, that is not the case. It appears that the Finns, or most probably the powerful food and agriculture lobby, just want to keep things as they are – lots of fat, salt, sugar and white flour to stuff into puffy stomachs…

Since 2017, a voluntary packet labelling system called Nutri-Score, (see above), allows consumers in France to see and compare the nutritional value of pre-packaged foods.

The UK’s The Lancet, the weekly general medical journal, has supported the system’s introduction.

Its adoption was made after a 4 year process, during which intense lobbying by agro-industry opposed scientific evidence. 

Although implementation of policies based on research evidence has been repeatedly shown to be necessary by the public health community and policy makers, the reality of political process is often disappointing. The French experience with Nutri-Score is compelling.

This type of system has been identified for several years by WHO and OECD as an important strategy to tackle nutrition-related diseases, because it helps consumers make informed decisions on the healthiness of their purchases. Moreover, front-of-pack labelling can provide strong incentives to the agro-industry to reformulate its products to improve their nutritional quality.

Dietary risk factors are leading causes of mortality and disability in the world; dietary risks were estimated to account for some 10 million deaths worldwide in 2016. Therefore, curbing the adverse effects of unhealthy diet is a major challenge in public health.

The framework in which this political decision was made, with reliance on science, was commended by the EU regional office of WHO. Experience shows how scientific evidence can help policy makers to face trade and commercial forces. 

The Nutri-Score provides a tool for adjusting regulatory pressure on the marketing, availability, and pricing of food products to form the basis of consistent policy actions targeting not only consumers, but also their food environment.

Calculation – A Nutri-Score for a particular food item is given in one of 5 classification letters, with ‘A’ being a preferable score and ‘E’ being a detrimental score. The calculation of the score involves 7 different parameters of nutrient information per 100g of food which are usually available on food packagings.

High content of fruits and vegetables, fibres, protein and healthy oils (rapeseed, walnut and olive oils, rule added in 2019) promote a preferable score, while high content of energy, sugar, saturated fatty acids, and sodium promote a detrimental score. In addition to the general calculation rules applied to most types of food, there are special rules for cheese, for “added fats” (fats that are meant as ingredients, such as vegetable oils or butter), and for beverages.

Adoption of the Nutri-Score – EU laws do not allow countries to unilaterally impose their own food labelling system, therefore they can only give recommendations.

The Nutri-Score has been officially recommended by health authorities in France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland.

In Portugal, Slovenia and Austria, some food companies such as Nestlé, Auchan or Danone announced that they would use the Nutri-Score although it was not officially recommended by the authorities.

Opposition to Nutri-Score is coming from a coalition of countries including Italy, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, and Romania. The Italian government has proposed a competing food label system. Southern EU countries say Nutri-Score puts the traditional Mediterranean diet at a disadvantage.

After checking the Finnish national newspapers and the various ministries, it appears that the Finnish authorities have given into the lobbyists’ demands and are not bringing the use of this simple science-based food label any time too soon!

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