A panel of international scientists have discussed, at a meeting for American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, “Why a Calorie Is Not a Calorie and Why It Matters for Human Diets.” 

The researchers report that energy consumed from the human diet is consistently under estimated because features of the digestive process are ignored, including the activity of gut microbes, bioavailability and the metabolic cost of food digestion. The scientists note that this could lead to errors of up to 30 per cent.  One of the scientists on the panel, Prof Richard Wrangham from Harvard University, states that it is time for a high-level panel to consider how best to improve the quality of information provided to the public about the real energy value of their foods noting that the current Atwater System is out of date. High fibre foods such as muesli contain more calories than stated, as the current system does not take into account calories from fibre.  An average bowl of bran cereal contains on average 20 extra calories, while muesli contains 12 more. British nutritionist Geoffrey Livesey who was also on the panel states that generally the system uses calories conversion factoring which means a gram of protein or carbohydrate provides four calories, while a gram of fat provides nine calories. This works for highly digestible foods but assumes that fibre has no energy value to the body.  He notes that fibre used to be mostly cellulose which was difficult to digest and would pass straight though the body however now fibre also includes pectins and soluble fibre which are broken down in the large intestine into compounds that provide energy for the body.  He states this is equivalent to around two calories per gram of fibre.  Wrangham states: “currently the standard method for determining dietary energy value (the Atwater system) systematically over-estimates the energy gain that is derived from relatively unprocessed foods.” Consumers could reduce their calorie intake by consuming raw instead of cooked foods as they are less digestible and take more energy to break down.  Klaus Englyst from Southampton talks about “Bioavailability of carbohydrates.”  He notes that “the ability to characterise dietary carbohydrates in detail and taking into consideration their bioavailability attributes, such as the rate and extent of starch digestibility, provides tools with which to better understand the impact of diet on metabolism and health.”   Rachel N. Carmody from Harvard University, one of the panellists says that energy values often reported in scientific literature and on nutrition labels suggest that food processing has little caloric effect. However recent controlled experiments in her laboratory using animal models have found that processing by thermal and/or non-thermal means contributes importantly to energy harvest from plant and animal foods.


Published in Nutrition
Wednesday, 09 October 2013 13:18

In Europe nutrition labelling becames mandatory

After 8 years of negotiation, a new food labelling law come on the scene. With the aims to empower consumers to make more informed dietary decisions, the European Commission has replaced the old Directive 90/496/EC of 1990 and Directive 2000/13/EC with a new regulation. The challenge is to generate and promote interest in and motivation for healthy eating among consumers and provision of consistent information across food products will hopefully aid in achieving greater awareness and use of nutrition information.

All pre-packed food products sold within the EU must display nutrition information in accordance with the new rules within three years of their formal adoption where this is already provided, i.e. by December 2014. However, if no nutrition information has been provided, the obligation to meet the new legal requirements will not become mandatory until five years after the formal adoption, i.e. December 2016.

The new regulation instructs food manufacturers to provide information on the energy value and fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt, exactly in this order and expressed per 100 g or per 100 mL of product; further nutrients (i.e. monounsaturates, polyunsaturates, polyols, starch, libre, vitamins, and minerals) can be included voluntarily.

This information should be presented in a nutrition table in the same field of vision, commonly on the “back of pack”, and may in addition be expressed on a per portion basis.

The regulation only mandates nutrition labelling in the same field of vision, labelling in the principal field of vision (e.g. “front-of-pack”) remains voluntary.

If information is repeated on the front of the pack, which can be the content of energy alone or in combination with fat, saturates, sugar and salt, the new rules stipulate that the energy value must be presented in absolute amounts per 100 g (mL) and additionally may be expressed per portion.

The new regulation maintains the requirement to display energy in both kilojoules (kJ) and kilocalories (kcal) per 100 g (mL) (there are 4.2 kJ in each kcal). When this information is declared for a portion or unit (e.g. amount per biscuit), the size of a portion/unit must be indicated, in conjunction with the number of portions or units contained in the package.

Regarding the font size, for the majority of food packaging labels, for all mandatory food information, a minimum font size of 1.2 mm is required. Smaller packaging (with a largest surface below 80 cm2) has a smaller minimum font size requirement (0.9 mm). Additionally, voluntary slogans or claims must not be presented in a manner that impinges on the presentation of mandatory information.

Specific and important rules regarding the allergens are stipulated. The foods, which have been established as responsible for the majority of allergic reactions to foods, must be clearly displayed and highlighted in the list of ingredients. Requirements on the provision of this type of information also cover non-pre-packed foods, including those sold in restaurants and café.

In order to achieve greater awareness and use of nutrition information, the mandatory food information will be required to appear in a language easily understood by consumers. Additionally, the Member States in which a food is marketed may stipulate that the information is given in one or more languages from among the official EU languages.

There also requirements in all those cases when food is sold by means of “distance communication” (e.g. internet or catalogues). The mandatory information present on the label must be made available before the purchase is concluded and must also be displayed on any material supporting the distance selling or provided through other appropriate means (e.g. webpage or catalogue).

Certain food categories are exempt from the new labelling law. Exemptions include unprocessed foods or items for which nutrition information is not considered a determining factor for consumers' purchasing decisions, or for which the packaging is too small to accommodate the mandatory labelling requirements. Within three years after the entry into force of the Regulation, the EC will examine alcoholic beverages and, if necessary, propose amendments.

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