8th February, 2012, Brussels
Conference Host: Joop Kleibueker – European Dairy Association (EDA)
Conference Chair: Dr Judith Bryans – Director, The Dairy Council (GB) and Chair of the EDA Nutrition Working Group
The EDA held a policy conference on saturated fat, dairy and health for policy makers, opinion formers and dairy stakeholders in Brussels on the 8th February 2012.
The aim of the conference was to:
• Present the new science on saturated fat, dairy and health
• Explore the nutritional value of dairy in terms of helping consumers meet their nutrient recommendations
• Understand how policy makers incorporate science into public health recommendations
• Initiate a constructive exchange between policy makers, scientists and the dairy industry on current public health policies and their potential effects (intended and unintended) on the health of the European consumer
Conference Programme Overview
Conference speakers and presentation titles
• Professor Arne Astrup, University of Copenhagen – New science on saturated fat, should we change the paradigm?
• Professor Ian Givens, University of Reading – What is the value of dairy in health?
• Mrs Esther de Lange, European Member of Parliament – How can new science be used to improve the health of the European consumer?
• Mrs Stephanie Bodenbach,DG Sanco, EU Commission
• Professor Andre Huyghebaert, University of Ghent, Belgium
• Mr Laurant Damiems, Cniel, France and Chair of the European Milk Forum
• Professor Arne Astrup, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
• Professor Ian Givens, University of Reading, UK
Professor Arne Astrup – University of Copenhagen
New science on saturated fat, should we change the paradigm?
Professor Astrup gave participants an historical overview of the science on saturated fatty acids explaining how old beliefs and science are still influencing current nutritional policies in this area. He followed this with an overview of the most up to date research in the area suggesting that the latest scientific findings are such that there is a need to reassess the way saturated fat is viewed by policy makers.
Professor Astrup highlighted the results of a consensus workshop which took place in 2010 in which global scientific experts in the area of fat and cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels) discussed the totality of the science on saturated fat, the biomarkers for risk of cardiovascular disease and the role of saturated fatty acids in isolation versus the role of saturated fatty acids in foods.
The consensus group found that:
- Not all saturated fatty acids have the same health effects.
- Older scientific studies which showed harmful effects of saturated fat had confounding factors that scientists are only now aware of but didn’t know before.
- Simplistic advice to reduce saturated fat could lead consumers into replacing saturated fat with other dietary components which may be more harmful. As a result, what saturated fat will be replaced by has to be considered before implementing public health policies in this area. Professor Astrup gave an example of a negative unintended consequence of public health policy. He described how policy makers had driven people away from eating butter towards eating plant based spreads not knowing that the industrially produced trans fat that these plant spreads contained were harmful for heart health. He said that since that advice was given, industrially produced trans fatty acids have been found to be twenty times more harmful than saturated fat for risk of coronary heart disease. And, industrially produced trans fatty acids are now banned in Denmark and are being removed in countries around Europe. He went on to talk about data which showed that replacing saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids (e.g. olive oil and canola oil) provides a small but solid reduction in risk of coronary heart disease. But, when saturated fatty acids are replaced with simple carbohydrates the risk for coronary heart disease is increased by 7%.
- Public health advice on the effect of a nutrient or food must be made on multiple biomarkers of a disease. Assessing the effect of the diet on a single biomarker for disease like cholesterol is not sufficient to assess it’s affect on coronary heart disease risk.
Professor Astrup also presented data from studies that showed beneficial effects of milk and dairy consumption on heart health and stressed the importance of looking at the health effects of whole foods rather than isolated nutrients. The effect of particular foods, such as cheese, on heart disease cannot be predicted soley by their saturated fatty acid content as these foods are also sources of nutrients such as protein and calcium which may negate any negative effect of saturated fat.
The take home message from Professor Astrup was that the health effects of foods cannot be predicted by looking at food labels (and the single nutrients the food contains) and that this must be recognised when developing public health policies.
Professor Ian Givens, University of Reading: What is the value of dairy in health?
Professor Givens’ presentation focused on the value of milk and dairy products in health and disease. He highlighted that:
- Milk and dairy products are important dietary sources of key nutrients including protein, calcium, phosphorus and vitamin B12.
- Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are nutrient dense, i.e. they supply a lot of nutrients per unit of energy compared to other food groups.
Professor Givens also highlighted recently published research by his group which has shown that people with the highest intake of dairy foods have a reduced risk of having ischemic heart disease, haemorrhagic strokes and new stroke events as well as a lower body mass index.
Speaking about dairy and stroke Professor Givens said that over long periods, those with higher milk consumption may even have some vascular protection due to positive effects of milk on blood pressure. It had previously been assumed that people eating a lot of dairy had an increased risk of cardiovascular disease because of the saturated fat, but it seems that saturated fat in milk fat doesn’t present the problem traditionally thought.
Professor Givens concluded that it was important to consider the whole food when making public health recommendations. He stressed the importance of the food matrix and assessing the effect of food and nutrients on health and said that the use of single risk markers of disease may be misleading.
Mrs Esther de Lange, Member of the European Parliament: How can we use new science to improve the health of the EU consumer?
Mrs Esther de Lange, Member of the European Parliament explained how policy makers in the European Parliament use scientific evidence to form their views on public health policy.
European policy decisions on health and nutrition issues are complicated by:
- The differing visions and messages of Member States.
- Clashes between different committees.
- Different lobbying groups using the same science interpreted differently to prove their points – this causes confusion. She reminded the audience that politicians are not nutritionists and if they are presented with two different messages about the same science they will often not get involved in the discussion or if they do, they will go with the Commission’s view because they don’t feel qualified themselves to make a call on the science.
She also said that policy makers need:
- Simple clear messages.
- Messages should be unified and come from multiple lobbies rather than just one lobby, so industries should form alliances and present a united front.
- Emotion in communicating messages is important because the science is not the whole story.
During the panel discussion which followed the main conference presentations the differing views of the scientists and the policy makers was clear.
Mrs Stephanie Bodenbach from DG Sanco explained that the current food reformulation activities of the European Commission and Member States as part of the EU nutrition strategy are aimed at making healthy food choice available to the consumer. Discussions currently taking place within the EU framework focus on reduction of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sugar intake and will look at portion sizes and frequency of consumption of foods. She pointed out that the European Commission acts as a risk manager for health issues and relies on the risk assessor i.e. the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for their advice. The official recommendation from the EFSA is that saturated fat intake should be as low as possible in a nutritionally adequate diet.
Mr Laurant Damiens talked about the fact that it is no longer appropriate to promote foods solely on their nutritional benefits. Differing perceptions amongst consumers in different countries complicate communications about the health benefits of milk and dairy across Member States. Differing interpretations of the health claims regulation and differing views between Member States on nutrients such as saturated fat also complicated communications about the benefits of dairy foods across EU countries. Communicating with the consumer about the whole food rather than single nutrients is important.
Professor André Huyghebaert said the following should be taken into account on any discussion relating to saturated fat and nutrition policy:
- The composition of milk fat is unique. Milk fat not only contains saturated fat but also unsaturated fat.
- The translation of scientific research into policy recommendations is a long process and is particularly difficult where saturated fat is concerned. He said that there was some resistance amongst the academic and policy making communities to change their views on saturated fat.
- Scientific language is difficult for consumers to understand. Simple messages are needed. Food based recommendations are better than nutrient based recommendations. The current dietary recommendations should be adapted. Messages should be delivered across in a clear and consistent fashion.
- There is a gap between knowledge and behaviour. Other issues such as trends in society, emotions and image are also important and affect people’s food choices.
Professor Astrup said that given recent scientific findings, the European Commission should reconsider its targets on the reduction of saturated fat. Mrs Bodenbach replied that as the EFSA had delivered their view of the science on saturated fat in their “Scientific opinion on dietary reference values for fat”, of 2010, she didn’t think that there would be another review anytime soon. She also argued that the recommendation to reduce the intake of saturated fat as much as possible does not mean that a zero intake is recommended.
There was general panel agreement that scientific information needs to be reviewed on an ongoing basis and that policy makers must take new science into account and ensure that dietary advice is based on the latest science. Academics should challenge existing science beliefs if they are outdated and come together in expert meetings to agree on consensus science. The messages which come out of these meetings must be presented to both policy makers and the consumer in a simple meaningful way.
A document showing the key messages to come out of the conference has been prepared by the EDA and will be available on the EDA website.