Home / Agenda / Toespraak van Hare Majesteit de Koningin, Symposium: experiences and perspectives on front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems, 25 April 2024, Brussels

Toespraak van Hare Majesteit de Koningin, Symposium: experiences and perspectives on front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems, 25 April 2024, Brussels

25 april 2024

Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my capacity as United Nations Sustainable Development Advocate, I should like to address a subject which is of concern to us all today: nutritional health and ways in which to improve it. Unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activity have become major problems today, endangering health and both physical and mental wellbeing.

A recent worldwide study published in The Lancet estimates that eight hundred and seventy-nine million adults and a hundred and fifty-nine million children and teenagers are now obese. That comes to 12% of the world’s population. If current trends continue, by 2035 one in two people will be overweight or obese.

The situation of children and young people is particularly worrying. According to the WHO-Europe’s latest study, 29% of children aged seven to nine are overweight or obese, with a higher prevalence among boys than girls.

In Belgium, excess weight affects 19% of children and young people, with even higher levels in those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, overweight and obesity are only the tip of the iceberg of illnesses directly linked to poor diet and lack of exercise: there are also cardiovascular problems, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and certain cancers… All of these diseases have a negative impact on people’s quality of life and reduce their healthy life expectancy. In addition, they place an ever heavier burden on society due to the direct and indirect costs to public health budgets.

Unhealthy eating habits are strikingly similar across the world. They are often the result of choices influenced by people’s environment, which favour behaviours that are damaging to health. This leads to excessive consumption of foods that are too high in fats, sugars, and salt, encouraged by marketing on social media which is particularly appealing to children and teenagers and which amplifies the attractiveness of these products.

Nonetheless, there are measures that we can take to improve the current situation and one of these could be an EU food labelling system to complement and summarize the detailed nutritional information already required on packaging by EU regulations.

Several international institutions, such as the WHO, the OECD, and the International Cancer Research Centre, have acknowledged the usefulness of an intuitively comprehensible, colour-coded logo like the Nutri-Score, as a simple, effective way to help citizens make healthier food choices.

A survey shows that the Nutri-Score is correctly interpreted by consumers and, in particular, by the most vulnerable, making this tool especially valuable to fight health inequalities. Moreover, it seems that Nutri-Scores are also easy for children to recognize and understand, which makes them a valuable tool to educate youngsters about making healthy food choices.

Of course, this type of additional food labelling cannot be expected to solve all the problems around unhealthy eating habits. Other measures are also needed to address rising levels of excess weight and obesity. Educating youngsters about healthy eating and looking at ways to improve school dinners from infant school right through the education system is also important. Access to a tasty meal at school with good nutritional value, made with fresh ingredients coming from local and sustainable sources could also contribute to the development of healthy, well-balanced eating habits. The ideal would be to make such a healthy school meal available to all, enhancing social justice amongst our youngest fellow citizens. This is indeed what the European Child Guarantee, recommended by the Commission, puts forward at EU level.

In conclusion, the adoption of a complementary, clear, scientifically validated food labelling system could make a positive difference to the promotion of healthy eating. In tandem with better education and improvements to the food environment, we can help to create a healthier future for everyone.

Thank you.