Sport nutrition

Navigating the complex regulatory framework of sports foods ahead of the European Elections

Luca Bucchini
European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA)


Sports nutrition

Sports food

Packaging and packaging waste

Front-of-pack nutrition labelling

Front-of-pack nutrition labelling

Farm to fork strategy

Nutrient profiles

This article provides an overview of the most important policy and regulatory developments in the EU affecting the sports and active nutrition industry. In particular, the article discusses the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory nutrient profiles and front-of-pack nutrition labelling, the Commission’s objective to introduce harmonised, EU-wide maximum permitted levels (MPLs) for vitamins and minerals included in foods and food supplements, the review of the Commission’s protein strategy as well as the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation. The article points out that in light of these developments and ahead of the European Elections, sports foods businesses need to stay on top of policy and regulatory updates and be prepared to tackle potential challenges.



Over the past few years, the European Commission has introduced a series of highly ambitious policy initiatives and regulatory proposals to make the food system healthier and bring sustainability into every step of the food chain, with many of them having an important impact on the sports and active nutrition industry. While we’ve seen substantial progress on some legislative files that affect the sports foods sector, others have been repeatedly delayed, creating uncertainty for the industry, which is only growing ahead of the European Elections.

This June, one third of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are set to lose their seats and this likely signals a significant shift in power between different political groups, with the latest polls suggesting there will be a significant shift to the political right and far-right. These political changes will heavily influence food policy in the next five years and will likely mean a change of priorities and approach on key regulatory files affecting the sports and active nutrition sector.

Against this backdrop, businesses need to stay on top of policy and regulatory updates and be prepared to tackle potential challenges. So, which are the most important legislative changes that have been announced by decision makers over the last few years that should be on companies’ radar and what are the latest developments?

Labelling and marketing of sports foods

Since they were announced by the Commission in May 2020, the introduction of mandatory nutrient profiles and front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FOPNL) have been perhaps the most controversial files within the Farm to Fork Strategy (the EU flagship initiative on food and sustainability and the biggest review of the current food legislation covering also sports nutrition).

The objectives of the nutrient profiles and FOPNL initiatives are to improve consumer access to food information and tackle the consumption of products that are high in fats, sugars and/or salt (HFSS). Specifically, the nutrient profiles legislation would be restricting the promotion, via nutrition and health claims, of HFSS foods, while the FOPNL would introduce simplified nutrition information provided on the front of food packaging to help consumers with their food choices.

ESSNA has run a targeted campaign on these files asking policy makers to take into account the specific purpose that sports and active nutrition products serve – which is to help sportspeople meet their dietary needs – and asking for clear exemptions for these products from the nutrient profile and FOPNL obligations as sports foods should not be considered unhealthy HFSS foods.

As ESSNA has stressed, setting nutrient profiles on sports nutrition would not improve consumers’ information about these products. Rather, it would prevent them from making healthy, informed choices. This is because, within the current regulatory framework, sports foods companies are able to inform active consumers about the benefits of their products, and changing the legislation and setting nutrient profiles on sports foods essentially means that consumers will no longer have access to this information.

The industry has also strongly advocated for exceptions for sports and active nutrition products from the proposed FOPNL regulation as their labelling cannot be the same as mainstream foods. Due to their composition, some sports foods would be penalised by a FOPNL scheme that does not take into account their specific use. Owing to their high concentration in certain nutrients, some of these products would be labelled as unhealthy, despite their proven benefits for sportspeople.

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Composition requirements

Another proposed change that will have an important impact to the sports and active nutrition industry is the Commission’s objective to introduce harmonised, EU-wide maximum permitted levels (MPLs) for vitamins and minerals included in foods and food supplements. As part of this objective, the Commission has tasked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to update its scientific advice on Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) for vitamins A, D, E, B6, folic acid/folate, iron, manganese and β-carotene. Following stakeholder consultations EFSA has already published its opinions on some of these nutrients (D, B6, acid/folate and manganese) and has recently launched public consultations on its draft opinions on vitamin A, β-carotene and iron.

The challenge for the industry is to make sure that the Commission will not set MPLs that are too low, so that businesses can continue to cater for the dietary needs of sportspeople. In this context, by contributing to EFSA’s consultations, based on members’ on-the-ground information, ESSNA is raising awareness of the specificities of sports foods and their role in supporting the nutritional requirements of active consumers.

Sustainability developments: the EU’s protein strategy and the regulatory framework of packaging and packaging waste

The European Parliament has recently published (1) a report calling for the development of a comprehensive and ambitious EU Protein Strategy. The report calls on the Commission to put forward a series of policy actions, with many of them being highly relevant to sports foods businesses using alternative proteins.

For instance, the Parliament has asked the Commission to introduce incentives for the production and use of sustainable proteins, providing financial support to the industry via relevant funding programmes, such as Horizon Europe.

The Parliament has also asked the Commission to improve the current administrative guidance on novel food applications by introducing a scientific and technical guidance document to provide clarifications on the authorisation process.

With the Commission now preparing a review of its protein policy, there are high expectations for the benefits that such political support and drive could bring to the plant-based and alternative proteins sectors.

Another much debated proposal within the set of EU sustainability measures announced over the past five years that is highly relevant for the sports and active nutrition industry is the much-awaited Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR). The EU institutions are currently negotiating the final text of this legislation, which is expected to be agreed upon in the next few months, bringing a whole new set of requirements and standards for the industry.

The proposal suggests stricter targets for the reduction, reuse and recycling of packaging and associated waste. It also sets out rules on the composition and design of packaging to mandate packaging minimisation, as well as new composition and labelling rules to aid recyclability.

The Parliament’s position (2) on the PPWR weakens some original positions from the Commission on reuse and recycle ambitions by providing certain exemptions. The Council’s position (3) on the other hand offers more flexibility to governments and more closely resembles the scope of the Commission’s original proposal (4).

Companies operating in the sports and active nutrition sector would be required to abide by the changes introduced by the PPWR. For instance, businesses may have to substitute their existing packaging for more sustainable and authorised materials under the new regulation.

While the new rules have the potential to greatly improve the sustainability of packaging, stakeholders have expressed concerns that the proposed reduction, reuse and recycling measures may compromise food hygiene and security and generate costly economic burdens on businesses and consumer.

For instance, ESSNA has identified several risks associated with the new provisions on the return of plastic bottles and beverage containers for reuse and has stressed the need for the development of cost-effective take-back infrastructure and technology to avoid higher prices for consumers. ESSNA has also stressed that the new rules mandating the reduction of transport packaging will not compromise food safety standards and the integrity of sports foods products.

Another focus of the proposal that concerns the sports and active nutrition sector is the use of used packaging materials, also called secondary raw materials, and novel materials for new packaging. While many sports and active nutrition businesses, including ESSNA members, are currently looking into alternatives to plastic packaging, such as biobased, biodegradable, and compostable plastics, the industry continues to encounter difficulties in gaining access to affordable, high-quality secondary raw materials due to their limited availability and high costs.

The forthcoming legislation could also create potential recycling challenges with regards to complex packaging materials. Many sports and active nutrition products are often packaged in hard-to-recycle materials, such as triple laminate films. In this context, the Commission needs to promote more investments in research and development of new recycling technologies that can recover secondary raw materials from hard-to-recycle packaging materials.

In light of the above developments and in the context of the European Elections, ESSNA will soon be launching its Manifesto, as part of its effort to continue ensuring that the interests of the industry are taken into account in relevant regulatory changes and helping decision makers gain a better understanding of the specificities of sports foods and their role in supporting healthy and active lifestyles.