x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Labels latest weapon in healthy diet push

In an effort to educate the public and improve eating habits, nutritional labels will be placed on food products.

ABU DHABI // Nutritional labelling for local food products will be introduced soon to promote healthy eating and lower obesity rates.

The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) and the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) are introducing the labels to help to reduce diabetes levels and encourage residents to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

"More than 30 per cent of adults in the UAE are obese," Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, the manager of non-communicable diseases at Haad, said at the Salon International de l'Agroalimentaire this week. "It's alarming."

Diabetes affects more than 20 per cent of Emiratis and 16 to 18 per cent of the total population.

In the GCC, 50 to 69 per cent of men are overweight or obese, as are 60 to 78 per cent of women.

"There's been a dramatic increase in diet-related, non-communicable diseases in the GCC," said Mohamed Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa manager for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

Authorities will introduce colour-coded nutritional labelling, with green representing healthy food, red for high calories and fat, and orange and yellow for foods that should be eaten in moderation.

"This isn't present in the UAE at the moment but it is under discussion with the authority," Dr Al Hajeri said.

"People need to know and as much as we want to invest in public awareness, we can't do it without this labelling. It's visual aiding and it works nicely with kids. Everything imported has a label and it makes it much easier."

Dr Al Hajeri said the goal was to start with children, as "it's easier".

"Seventy per cent of children who are obese are likely to be obese when older, and that number is increasing," she said. "We cannot just stand and watch. It's turning into an epidemic."

School canteens will start to increase the variety of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains on offer, and set minimum and maximum levels of calories.

"We want to increase this to all schools," Dr Al Hajeri said.

Children will be taught to look at the coloured labels, following the UK's example. The ADFCA also hopes to provide consumers with new labels based on European and US systems.

"Labelling provides all the key information to the consumer," said Mustafa Salama, the authority's specialist in regulations and standards.

Since 2006, manufacturers have been required to list ingredients on pre-packaged food sold in Abu Dhabi. They have also been required to prove any claimed benefits or disease-preventing properties.

But The National reported in March that companies continue to export products lacking the necessary information, or make unacceptable claims.

"It's in the draft process now and we're hoping to run it next year," Mr Salama said.

Nutritional and health claims in food labelling were said to be in the final stages.

"It will apply to all food for which nutrition or health claims are made, sold on the Abu Dhabi market to consumers," Mr Salama said.

"We plan on making a database on health claims for food next year. The number of food products bearing health claims marketed in the UAE is increasing daily."

Haad is also working on disease-management programmes that will encourage residents to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

"There are not enough food advertisements out there," Dr Al Hajeri said. "We're targeting families at risk with either obese or diabetic parents."

Mr Mansour said: "Obesity is a very big public problem in the UAE and the GCC. The recommended intake of total sugars, total fats and sodium will be issued soon."

He said all food outlets were concerned with nutritional recommendations and urged them to post information on their products.

cmalek@thenational.ae