Will dark chocolate force food-labelling laws to change?

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 12th June 2012

As the food regulatory ministerial forum in Australia continues working on development of a policy that will promote more government-backed requirements for front-of-pack labelling, a new issue has surfaced.

The issue is whether the regulatory policy on labelling fats in Australia (and elsewhere) needs to create a new classification to distinguish stearic acid from other saturated fats.

The issue has arisen because of medical findings published in the British Medical Journal this month that recommend a daily intake of dark chocolate as a form of medical intervention.

Nutritional collaborator on the dark chocolate study, Dr Alice Owen from Monash University, told Australian Food News that the mathematical modelling they undertook combined the findings from a number of different trials of various forms of chocolate. Dr Owen said, “On average, the amount of cocoa polyphenols required to achieve the significant effects on cardiovascular risk factors was equivalent to around 100g of plain dark chocolate.”

The problem, according to food law expert Joe Lederman, is that the current labelling laws, as well as front-of-pack labelling systems such as traffic lights, would prevent dark chocolate from being marketed with any health benefit claim. Dark chocolate is predominantly a saturated fat (of which the dominant component is stearic acid) and would be precluded by nutrient profile scoring criteria from being a food eligible to carry a health claim.

Mr Lederman said the current Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (ANZFSC) in Standard 1.2.8 further requires any food label that makes a claim about fats to highlight the breakdown between polyunsaturated fats as against saturated fat and trans fat. He said that Australian labelling laws combine all saturated fats, and all are lumped in the same category as trans fat, even though trans fat is not a saturated fat.

Dr Owen acknowledged that 100g of dark chocolate is a significant caloric load on a daily basis, and that this would need to be considered if one decided to consume dark chocolate every day.

She said, “Ideally one would adjust other sources of fat and sugar in the diet to account for the chocolate, consume smaller amounts of a polyphenol-enriched chocolate, or consume other foods which are rich in the same types of flavonoids to meet the amount needed for cardiovascular benefit.”

Differences in heart effect of fats

Professor Peter Clifton, one of Australia’s leading experts in cardiac nutrition, based at the Baker IDI Institute, was asked by Australian Food News about the comparable risks and benefits of foods with different types of fat.

Trans fat is the worst

Professor Clifton confirmed that trans fat has been demonstrated to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels (the so-called “bad cholesterol”), as well as having the least nutritional value. Trans fat is strongly associated with heart disease and carries greater health risks than saturated fat. It is not a saturated fat, but considered the worst fat.

Saturated fat

According to Professor Clifton, “There is no necessity for us to eat saturated fat – we are very good at making it and about half of our storage fat is saturated.” Excessive consumption of high-energy foods can lead to our bodies storing the excess energy in the form of saturated fats.

Professor Clifton said that saturated fats are associated with an elevation in LDL cholesterol levels, and increase the risk of developing clots, as well as provoking inflammation.

Polyunsaturated fat

Professor Clifton pointed out, “While we don’t need any trans or saturated fat in our diet, a small amount of polyunsaturated fat is necessary.”

“We do need a gram or two of n6 polyunsaturated fat, as we can’t make that ourselves. If we don’t get it we develop a skin rash,” he continued.

Professor Clifton said that he believes all unsaturated fats are equally healthy.

Stearic acid and the dark chocolate conundrum

When questioned by Australian Food News about stearic acid, which makes up a high proportion of the saturated fat in dark chocolate, Professor Clifton said that stearic acid is a form of saturated fat that is converted by the liver into a less harmful monounsaturated fat that does not raise LDL cholesterol levels. He did not, however, advocate an increase in consumption of a food product that contained stearic acid.

“Although stearic acid does not raise LDL, it may still influence coagulation and inflammation. For this reason, more work is required, especially if chocolate is going to be recommended to reduce cardiovascular disease on the basis of blood-pressure lowering alone. It may not be as beneficial as modelled,” he said.

Meanwhile, in relation to the dark chocolate study, Dr Alice Owen confirmed the stearic acid question was not resolved. She said that, metabolically, stearic acid does behave differently to other saturated fats.  “For example there is some evidence to suggest that stearic acid does not have the same cholesterol-raising effects of other saturated fats,” she added.

“This does make the simplified ‘saturated fat’ content on food labels difficult to interpret. However striking the balance between simplicity of message to the consumer and accounting for the complexity of whole foods is a nutritional science in itself,” Dr Owen said.

On this subject, Australian food lawyer Joe Lederman, of FoodLegal, commented there may be a regulatory problem in the suggestion of dark chocolate becoming a medical intervention.

“It would require a change in the wording of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (ANZFSC) to treat a food containing a significant portion of stearic acid any differently from a food full of harmful saturated fat,” he said.

Mr Lederman also pointed out that many of the food composition standards in the ANZFSC might be based on a reductionist scientific view. “The Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code does not currently consider the effect of polyphenols or look at the combined health effects of various nutritive substances from a single food. It’s a pity that different scientists cannot look at the total health effects of a food in its entirety,” he said.

“The idea of judging a food by traffic lights for each separate nutrient category or ingredient may not be sufficient to tell consumers the full story,” Mr Lederman continued. He said he was speaking as a food lawyer, not as a medical or nutritional expert.

In response to the dark chocolate conundrum, Dr Owen said she and her colleagues are fully supportive of the Australian Government ‘Australian Guide to Healthy Eating’ and the regulation of nutritional claims on food packaging.

She said, “Moderation and variety are key, which we appreciate does get lost in the oversimplified “eat 100g of dark chocolate per day”. There are so many different types of polyphenols in the variety of foods we eat that “eat the polyphenol content equivalent to 100g of dark chocolate” would require a considerable amount of research by the consumer to achieve.”

According to Mr Lederman, the law will need to reflect a change in the scientific consensus before dark chocolate gets promoted as a medical intervention.