EU Science Hub

Many popular packaged foods in the EU contain too much fat, sugar, salt and too little fibre

According to the JRC study, a large number of food products frequently sold on the EU market contain too much sugar, salt, fat, and not enough fibre
According to the JRC study, a large number of food products frequently sold on the EU market contain too much sugar, salt, fat, and not enough fibre
Oct 23 2019

A large number of food products frequently sold on the EU market contain too much sugar, salt, fat, and not enough fibre.

This is the result of a JRC study that assessed packaged foods against marketing-related nutrition standards developed by European public and private sector organisations.

Eating too much saturated fat, sugar and salt and not enough fibre are key contributors to the high prevalence of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes in Europe.

The marketing of foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt counters the efforts by EU countries in promoting healthy eating and may lead to poor diets, especially in children.

Consequently, the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive obliges Member States to foster the use of co- and self-regulation to limit children's exposure to commercials for foods and beverages that are high in salt, sugar, saturated fats or trans-fatty acids or that otherwise do not respect nutritional guidelines.

Up to two thirds of the 2700 products analysed ineligible for marketing to children

Working from a Euromonitor 2016 database covering 20 EU countries, the JRC scientists evaluated the nutritional composition of 2691 products in five product categories (breakfast cereals, ready meals, processed meat, processed seafood, and yoghurts).

The JRC study reveals that between half to two thirds of all the products analysed are ineligible for marketing to children.

The most common reasons for this ineligibility were:

  • breakfast cereals and yoghurts were too high in sugars;
  • processed meat, processed seafood, and ready meals had too much salt;
  • breakfast cereals did not have sufficient fibre;
  • yoghurts were too high in total and saturated fat.

It is to be noted that these food products are likely consumed widely and regularly in the EU, including by children, even without being marketed to them.

This is a matter of concern and may explain, in part, the high child obesity rates and health and economic burden of chronic diseases.

Balanced measures needed to achieve gains for public health

Product innovation and reformulation of foods are key strategies to improve the nutrient balance of the food supply.

In this context, reformulation means modifying the nutritional content of foods, and nutritional criteria – for example, upper limits for salt, fat or sugar – can serve as targets.

At EU-level, Member States and stakeholders are already working towards specific reformulation goals.

The JRC study shows that efforts at scale are needed and repeating this analysis over the coming years could help monitor the necessary progress to achieve gains for public health.

About the JRC study

Two nutrient profile models developed for the purpose of restricting marketing of foods and beverages to children were used in the JRC study.

One model was developed by the private sector (EU Pledge) and the other by the World Health Organization's Regional Office for Europe (WHO Europe).

These models were selected for the study for three reasons:

  1. they have a matching Europe-wide scope;
  2. the WHO Europe model has already been used to assess product healthfulness in general; and
  3. nutrient profile models with the express purpose of assessing product healthfulness in general show similar criteria to the models of the EU Pledge and WHO Europe.