The death of diet foods? EU Parliament approve laws that could 'wipe out' very low calorie diet products

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Manufacturers and distributors of very low calorie diet (VLCD) programmes and products could be effectively wiped out by new rules passed by European lawmakers last week, warn industry leaders.

An attempt to block new laws on the harmonisation of diet foods in Europe has failed, with Members of European Parliament (MEPs) voting down an objection by 36 votes to 26 (with one abstention).

The European legislation, which after the failed objection will now be written into law, attempts to harmonise rules on foods intended for use in energy-restricted diets for weight reduction, including total diet replacement products for weight control, as Europe faces a growing tide of clinical obesity.

“We supported the need for legislation on composition but our repeated requests that the scientific evidence be reconsidered before legislation was made were rebuffed,” commented Professor Anthony Leeds, Medical Director of the European Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD) Industry Group.

Obesity and obesity-related conditions are challenging all European countries,” said Leeds.

“The EU has misjudged this issue,” he commented. “The very latest published scientific evidence shows that total diet replacement (VLCD and LCD) programmes deliver the amount of weight loss (10 to 20kg) needed to have a huge beneficial impact on Europe’s major health challenges: diabetes, osteoarthritis, and cardiovascular disease.”

Regulatory change: Why does it matter?

After receiving a report from the European Food safety Authority (EFSA) in 2015, the Commission initially proposed a new set of rules (Regulation (EU) No 609/2013) including laws on the composition of these diet foods.

While the EFSA report and new proposals were initially welcomed, things began to fall apart when by early 2016 many realised that some of the proposed changes were unworkable - meaning that changes to law would result in VLCDs being very difficult to manufacture, would make them taste unpleasant, have an unappealing texture, turn rancid quickly and be much more expensive for consumers – effectively wiping them out from the market.

Leeds points to new rules demanding that diet replacement regimes should contain a minimum of 75 grams (g) of protein, compared to previous demands of 50g, while the trade body was also unhappy about new demands on levels of essential fatty acids (11g for linoleic acids and 1.4g for alpha linoleic) – suggesting that the new demands will lead to "a sharp increase in production costs."

Several MEPs recognised the issues and suggested that the law may counter its intended purpose. As such they put forward a motion for resolution to block the act.

The VLCD Industry Group called on MEPs to reject the proposals and put forward a compromise agreement, which would have included a 60g minimum level of protein and a 6g minimum level of linoleic acids and 0.7g minimum level of alpha linoleic.

However the motion for resolution was rejected – meaning the original EC regulation will be published and the act will enter into force.

‘Catastrophic effects’

According to Professor Leeds the decision will likely negatively impact the rising tide of obesity levels across the EU – and also fails to take into account evidence from new EU-funded trials that show significant benefits in terms of weight loss and healthcare cost-savings.

“An EU-funded trial in six EU member-states and two others has shown that people at risk of diabetes can reduce weight by an average 10kg using total diet replacements and over one third are no-longer pre-diabetic,” said Leeds.

He added that is it ‘deeply disappointing’ that such a European collaborative project – which demonstrated that elderly obese could lose 10kg and keep it off for four years, suffering less pain throughout as a consequence – has been set back since these are major contributors to expensive knee operations.

The health-care cost-savings of this are mind-boggling and should have convinced more committee members to vote for this rejection of legislation,” he said – adding that the new rules are ‘disproportionate’ and ‘largely unsubstantiated’.

“The European Food Safety Authority itself has openly admitted that some of its recommendations are based on theory rather than hard scientific evidence. This legislation is not supported by evidence showing that current compositions are anything other than safe, nor is there hard scientific evidence to show that the new changes would make them safer for consumers.” 

Professor Leeds warned that the decision will also have ‘catastrophic effects’ on ordinary consumers who simply want to manage weight loss – adding that it carries “a very real risk of forcing them to turn to dangerous, unregulated alternatives such as illegal slimming pills or ‘fad’ diets’ in their desperation to lose weight.”

“It goes completely against the main objective of the Food for Specific Groups regulation to enhance consumer safety, and quite simply, is very likely to escalate the already shocking public health challenge of obesity in Europe.”

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