Earlier this year, after the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) scientific opinion on health claim assigned to fructose, the European Union authorized a claim stating that fructose has “a beneficial impact on blood glucose levels when it is used to substitute sucrose or glucose in the finished product”. However, EFSA’s opinion also contains a negative health warning of “metabolic complications”. The decision has met sceptical if not negative reactions from a vast array of non-communicable disease (NCDs) experts stating that in times of skyrocketing levels of obesity what we need is to convey messages discouraging people from consuming sugars, not make some of them more appealing.
Following a request from the European Commission, the EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies was asked to provide a scientific opinion on a list of health claims pursuant to Article 13 of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. In 2011 EFSA arrived at its final decision, which was subsequently sent to the European Commission. The fructose health-claim states that fructose has “a beneficial impact on blood glucose levels when it is used to substitute sucrose or glucose in the finished product” and that in order to carry the claim, “the sucrose or glucose content in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks should be reduced by at least 30% due to fructose-substitution”.
While EU Member States strive to adapt and implement their national programmes for prevention and counterfeiting obesity and other poor diet-related NCDs, such health authorization can be misleading or confusing. In Europe, an estimated 50% of all men and women were overweight in 2008, and 23% of all women and 20% of men were obese, according to the World Health Organization. Sugar consumption has been found a leading contributor to obesity epidemic, in particular among the child population.
Besides just a general skeptical reaction to supporting sugar – even if considered ‘natural’ – consumption, public health community points out to a numerous studies linking fructose with negative health effects. Even the scientific opinion given by EFSA itself warns against “high intakes of fructose” as it “may lead to metabolic complications such as dyslipidaemia, insulin resistance and increased visceral adiposity”.
Fructose is metabolised differently than other sugars – it directly reaches the liver (“Dietary fructose linked to liver damage“) and its unprocessed amounts are transformed into fat, building up deposits that can cause life-threatening diseases. Increased levels of fructose – especially in childhood – besides being behind the epidemic of childhood obesity, also cause type-2 diabetes, lower children’s cognitive development and might be linked to spike in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer or dementia (“The emerging role of dietary fructose in obesity and cognitive decline“).
The benefits of fructose are still to be well-researched but in a meantime to many, fructose health-claim will only add to benefits gained by the food and drink industry (increased ‘healthiness’, demand), underlined by (already planned) transformation of the sugar-producing sector, especially in light of the abolition of the sugar quotas in 2017 from the Single CMO of the Common Agricultural Policy, including a quota on isoglucose (High Fructose Corn Sugar).
The Commission backs up its decision by stressing out that the claim is to be used by the target population of sugar-users who wish to “reduce their post-prandial (after having a meal) glycaemic” behaviour, and not to “encourage the intake of fructose in the general population”.
The Commission is set to monitor the effects of the claim – as requested by some EU MS. At the latest meeting of the ENVI Committee, MEP Glenis Willmott (S&D, UK) issued a parliamentary question asking a similar action.