Food supplements can improve public health and reduce pressure on the sustainability of healthcare systems in the EU. However, to achieve the full potential of the sector, the EU needs a clear political strategy and stable legislative framework write MEPs Simona Bonafè and Pascal Arimont.
The topic was discussed last Tuesday (18 February) during the event “Food supplements for healthier citizens and a stronger economy in the EU” supported by the European Federation of Associations of Health Product Manufacturers (EHPM), representing approximately 1,600 specialist health-product manufacturers and distributors (mostly SMEs).
Food supplements are concentrates of important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, amino and fatty acids, botanicals and other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect.
They are not meant to treat any diseases but their role in reducing the risk factors associated with developing several diseases, especially in some groups of the population, is recognized by the scientific community.
Additionally, overwhelming evidence supports that primary prevention is far more efficient and resourceful than disease treatment, and food supplements have a lot to offer in promoting a healthy lifestyle that reduces the risk of developing diseases.
The food supplement sector has an important role to play in countering the pressure on our healthcare systems, through the reduction of diet-related risk factors for several diseases and by improving public health.
It is the role of legislators to start recognising the potential of the sector and incorporate food supplements in their healthcare strategies.
The food supplement sector is also an important contributor to the EU economy by generating economic growth and creating jobs.
Reliable and evidence-based information
Citizens are increasingly aware of the health impact of food products and are at the forefront of change, through adjusting their diet and lifestyle in the pursuit of improved wellbeing.
This is why they need reliable and evidence-based information about the health benefits of food products.
However, the EU legislative framework currently demands a medical-style scientific proof for the authorization of food supplements, which is alien to the food industry.
This has resulted in only a small number of the more than 4000 health claims identified on the market receiving final authorization, negatively impacting trust in the sector and opportunities for innovation.
Due to the absence of reliable information about health claims by public health authorities, the food supplements sector is facing a threat to trust in food supplements as citizens are turning to unverified sources of information online, and often fall victim to disinformation and fake news.
The current EU legislative framework needs to be revised to ensure that consumers have access to accurate and evidence-based information about the health benefits of products while ensuring that the fight against fraudulent claims does not have a negative impact on innovation within the sector.
Innovation, a key aspect
Businesses are unlikely to invest in the development of new products unless they have a supportive legislative environment with clear rules for product approvals and the use of health claims, which holds especially true for SMEs with smaller risk margins.
As the sector is an important contributor to the EU economy by generating economic growth and creating jobs, we need to ensure its ability to innovate.
Without innovation, the role of the food supplement sector in improving public health is severely impaired.
One way to promote innovation would be to improve access to cross-border trade within the EU Single Market.
While tariffs have been long abolished within the EU Single Market and the free movement of goods and services should be guaranteed, the freedom of businesses to operate cross-border is often hindered by hidden barriers.
Additionally, in the era of digitalization, it is imperative to have a well-regulated digital marketplace that ensures a level playing field for all actors.
For example, food supplement providers often face unfair competition from third country importers with less stringent product standards. This can also have a negative impact on innovation as well as consumer trust within the food supplement sector.
We need to set our priorities right, as we stand at the start of the new EU political term. Untapping the potential of the food supplements sector will improve public health, it will have a positive impact on the sustainability of our healthcare systems and it will contribute to economic growth, creating jobs for the benefit of all Europeans.