Healthy eating agendas and so-called “fat taxes” in many countries are forcing the food industry to cut back on salt and sugar in products and to promote the health benefits of other items – including chocolate.
The health claims surrounding chocolate are many and various, bombarding consumers with “evidence” that it can help prevent cancer, cure coughs, stave off heart disease, produce a general sense of well-being and even stimulate flagging sex lives.
Many of these claims are yet to be proven and some have been scientifically dismissed as urban myths. Legislation in many countries has also blocked the use of unsubstantiated claims in marketing food products.
But the more sophisticated research into chocolate’s health advantages has gained some acceptance, particularly into the cardiovascular benefits of cocoa flavanols, particularly in dark chocolate.
Swiss-based Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer, last month gained backing from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The European Union’s food watchdog authority ruled that there was credible evidence to suggest that flavanols aided “healthy blood flow”.
Barry Callebaut evidently sees commercial benefits if the European Commission endorses the EFSA opinion in the next few months. “As the first company receiving such a health claim, we see new market potential both for us and for our customers,” said chief executive Jürgen Steinemann in a statement.
A report this year from consultancy firm KPMG recommended exactly this approach to combat growing fears of obesity that are linked to sweet snacks.
“The industry should debate the potential health benefits and enable chocolate to be among the next generation of functional foods, pushing the antioxidant effects of dark chocolate or investigating the energy-boosting properties of bars with oats, nuts or ‘super fruits’,” the study said.
The industry hopes that this approach will keep its products safe from government crackdowns on a range of high calorie snacks and beverages.
Denmark already has a “fat tax” on unhealthy foods, Hungary has introduced a “junk food tax” while France is poised to impose a levy on sweetened drinks. Other countries, including Peru, Israel, Britain and Ireland are considering whether they should follow suit.
Switzerland has no plans to introduce special taxes on unhealthy foods, but will soon force companies to label products in line with the EU practice of showing both salt, sugar and fat content of products while highlighting recommended daily doses.
Chocolate is only one of a vast array of products to come under the microscope of regulators. And Heinrich von Grünigen, president of the Swiss Obesity Foundation, does not believe that enhanced health claims of chocolate would necessarily lead to more overweight people.
“There would be a problem if chocolate was marketed as a medicine or if consumers were encouraged to eat more of it,” he told swissinfo.ch. “But if the promotion is of a broader nature then it is down to consumers to control their own intake.”
“If you eat chocolate then find the best quality you can get and enjoy a little bit every day.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that foods high in sugar, salt or fat content are not marketed to children.
No patronising, please
Tim Armstrong, of the WHO’s department of chronic diseases and health promotion, echoed von Grünigen’s sentiments about responsible marketing for adult consumers.
“Whilst WHO has no position on the specific health benefits of chocolate, in general any messages related to health claims must not mislead the public about the nutritional benefits or risks,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“As chocolate is usually high in fat and sugars, consuming too much of any product high in sugar, fat or salt is not consistent with a healthy diet. Further, if such products are replacing ‘healthy foods’ such as fruit, then the problem can be further compounded.”
The chocolate industry is also concerned that consumers are given the right message.
“We are very well informed about the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s consumers, which vary quite a lot from region to region,” Barry Callebaut spokesman Jörn Wagenbach told swissinfo.ch.
“When it comes to the question on how much guidance the consumers need, we say that chocolate in all its variety has a place within a balanced diet. Consumers have to be well informed but not patronised.”
Several countries have launched new regulations in an effort to curb marketing and/or over-consumption of a range of food and beverage products blamed for health issues, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Last year, Denmark introduced a tax on food products with a saturated fat content of higher than 2.3%.
In 2011, Hungary also imposed a new levy on foods that contain too much fat, salt or sugar.
France is poised this year to crack down on the consumption of sugary drinks, if proposed tax measures pass parliamentary hurdles.
Japan went down a different route in 2008, threatening companies and local authorities with a punitive tax if they failed to introduce certain measures (such as reducing the size of packaged snacks) to improve diets of their workers.
Many countries have introduced tougher laws on the labeling and marketing of foods and beverages.
Food producers that claim health benefits of their products in the European Union must first have these claims assessed by the European Food Safety Authority.
The European Commission then makes a ruling after considering the EFSA opinion.end of infobox