The European Union has made some progress in proposing actions to create healthier food environments, but it remains to be seen whether these improvements will have a lasting effect on the prevention of non-communicable diseases. This report aims to evaluate how the European Union’s most important food and nutrition policies have been implemented. It also outlines the most effective ways for the public to contribute to the creation of these healthier environments.
Food environments encompass a range of elements including policy, infrastructure, structure and social factors. These are key factors in determining how a population eats, and thus how they may be affected by obesity and other diet-related illnesses. As such, a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of such policies is necessary to inform policy makers and their implementation.
To help identify key food environment policy measures, the EU has created the Healthy Food Environment Policy Index. In 11 countries, this index was used to assess the implementation of key food and nutrition policies. Based on this information, key recommendations were identified, and then prioritized. For example, experts recommended that healthy food prices be increased, and unhealthy food marketing be banned. Other recommendations included improving the capacity of government officials and professionals involved in promoting healthy eating, and promoting the health benefits of fruit and vegetables.
The corresponding Health Food Environment Regulatory Environment Index was developed to determine whether or not progress has been made in the implementation of these policies. It was based on the same methodology. However, it was designed to better monitor the status of progress in these policies, and was adapted to reflect the specificities of each country.
Key findings from the Healthy Food Environment Regulatory Environment Index include the importance of price increases and the effectiveness of the School Fruit Scheme in encouraging healthy eating. In particular, the School Fruit Scheme is estimated to have had a positive influence on the intake of fruits and vegetables by children in many of the Member States. Despite the success of this scheme, further action is still needed to ensure that healthy food is affordable.
Despite these findings, there are still insufficient insights into how best to improve the food environment in Europe, or what the optimum policies for the region are. Therefore, more ambitious and mandatory measures are required to help achieve global nutrition targets. Some of the most significant and innovative food and nutrition policies in Europe include the sugar content tax, banning unhealthy foods in schools, and zoning legislation for ‘no fry’ zones.
In addition, it is imperative to evaluate the potential for improvement in individual country’s food environments. While some countries have taken steps to promote healthier diets, such as Poland and Portugal, others have not. That is why the FBDG (Food and Beverage Drink Guidance) – a guideline for EU officials to consider when drafting food policies – needs to consider both positive and negative messages. Rather than restricting foods and beverages that are not healthy, such as those with high saturated fat, sugar or salt content, it is more productive to promote healthier options through subsidies and free vouchers.