Sports nutrition industry challenges proposed food labelling legislation in the EU

Proposed mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling legislation in the EU will be detrimental to the sport nutrition industry. Dr Adam Carey, Chairperson of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance, looks at the regulatory options and discusses reasons why the sport nutrition industry should be exempt from the proposed food labelling laws.

One of the main public health challenges that Europe is facing today is obesity. According to Eurostat [1], in 2019, 52.7% of  the adult population in the EU was overweight. Against this background, as part of the Farm to Fork Strategy [2] that was published in May 2020, the European Commission has proposed amendments to EU food law to promote healthy diets among Europeans as well as to make the EU food system healthier.  Here are the regulatory changes that may affect the sports  and active nutrition industry and what the sector can do to tackle upcoming challenges.

The Commission seeks to review the Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (FIC) to tackle the consumption of products that are high in  fats, sugars and/or salt (HFSS). Specifically, it proposes to set nutrient profiles to restrict the promotion, via nutrition and health claims, of HFSS foods.

Front-of-pack nutrition labelling
Another proposed amendment to the FIC legislation is the introduction of mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FOPNL), which refers to simplified nutrition information provided on the front of food packaging. Currently, the indication of nutrition information on the front-of-pack in the EU is provided on a voluntary basis. Member States and food business operators are free to develop their own schemes, adapted to their consumers, provided they comply with certain criteria of the FIC regulation. There are currently six front-of-pack schemes that the public sector in the EU has developed or endorsed, the most popular one being the French Nutri-Score system, which uses a 5-letter grade, colour-coded key to assign foodstuffs and beverages to nutritional brackets. With a mandatory FOPNL, the Commission aims to improve consumers’ understanding of the nutritional value of foods and facilitate shoppers’ healthier food choices, as well as to stimulate food reformulation towards healthier products.

From December 2020 to February 2021, the European Commission released a roadmap for feedback and from December 2021 to March 2022 a public consultation was launched looking at the economic and social impacts of FOPNL and nutrient profiles on variety of food sectors. The sports and active nutrition industry has stressed that the FOPNL and nutrient profiles obligations need to take into account the specific purpose that sports foods serve and has been calling for exemptions of these products from the upcoming legislation. The European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), the trade body representing the interests of the sports and active nutrition sector across Europe, has been very vocal on this issue and has run a campaign to raise awareness of the severe impact that a blanket application of FOPNL and the setting of nutrient profiles may have on sports nutrition products.

Sports nutrition products are targeted at people who exercise and require certain nutrients (such as sodium, carbohydrates  and protein) to supplement their active lifestyles that meet their specific nutritional needs. Due to their composition, some sports nutrition products may risk being caught by the HFSS definition under the FOPNL and nutrient profiles and labelled as unhealthy. As a result, consumers will not have access to the information regarding the health benefits of sports food, which are well documented in scientific literature. For instance, sports nutrition products are often high in protein which, as scientific research has shown, helps the maintenance of normal bones and muscle growth. The industry’s request for the exemption of sports nutrition products from the FOPNL and nutrient profiles legislation is backed by the ‘Q&A document’ [3] on Nutri-Score that the French public health authority, Santé Publique France issued in March 2021. In this document Santé Publique France advised against the use of the Nutri-Score on sports nutrition products, arguing that the underlying nutrient profiling of this scheme was developed with the needs of the general population in mind, whereas sports nutrition must meet specific needs.

Another positive development for the sports and active nutrition industry was the European Parliament’s vote on its own, non-legally binding, initiative report [4] on the European Commission’s Farm to Fark Strategy, which was voted on in October 2021. While the Parliament voted in favour of setting mandatory nutrient profiles and FOPNL, following ESSNA’s extensive engagement with EU policy makers, the Parliament agreed that FOPNL legislation needs to “be developed based on independent scientific evidence and demonstrated consumer understanding, taking into account specialist foods as well as the additional burden for food operators and unions”.

ESSNA survey
Following the Parliament’s vote, the Commission received feedback on the draft act and is expected to adopt its proposal, with the legislative process set to begin in the European institutions in the fourth quarter of 2022. Ahead of the Commission adoption, from the beginning of August to mid-September 2022, ESSNA launched a survey [5] on FOPNL to gather the sports and active nutrition industry’s expert views on the impact of the legislation for the sector. The survey collected evidence on the current use of FOPNL schemes across the sector and explored any challenges that would emerge from the introduction of a mandatory, EU-wide FOPNL.

The questionnaire revealed that a majority of businesses in the sports nutrition sector has concerns over the impact that a mandatory FOPNL will have on the industry. Stakeholders agree that a mandatory FOPNL will not help to communicate the benefits of sports nutrition products but may, in contrast, distort the communication of the functionality of sports foods, and their role in catering for the specific dietary needs of people engaged in exercise. This is because FOPNL, such as the Nutri-Score, are based on the dietary needs of the general public, which may differ from the dietary needs of sportspeople.

In addition, stakeholders note the additional economic burden that a mandatory FOPNL would pose on the industry. For instance, some businesses in the industry may face costs of up to €4 million for redesigning their product labels. Other stakeholders noted costs associated with reformation of products which, where possible, includes costs for R&D for new formulas, tasting panels, sensory studies and third-party certification. Due to the special composition of sports nutrition products, room for reformulation is often small, giving sports nutrition companies no choice but to accept an unfavourable scoring on FOPNL. For those and many more reasons, stakeholders agree that sports nutrition products should be exempted from the labelling obligations. Instead, the industry recommends that regulators focus on improving consumer education, helping consumers understand nutritional labels and the added value of sports foods in supporting healthy lifestyles.

The legislation governing sports nutrition, particularly the General Food Law, is the most stable it has been for years, as a result of the industry’s successful engagement with decision makers to ensure the specificities of the sector are taken into account in policymaking. Now with the Commission’s ambitious Farm to Fork Strategy, the sports and active nutrition sector is facing the wave of change. The industry needs to come together to continue its active engage-ment with the EU regulatory process and provide its expertise to make sure the FOPNL and nutrient profiles obligations will not disproportionally affect the sector and that consumers’ health and sportspeople’s needs remain top priority.