On 1 January 2022, France will start its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. Ahead of this upcoming term, a small stone has slipped into the shoe of French leaders: Nutri-Score. This nutritional labelling system, in the form of a traffic light, has been used by French retail outlets since 2016 and now has the full attention of the European Commission, which is looking for the ideal candidate for its FOP (front of pack) labelling system. But Nutri-Score is facing competition from other systems and is increasingly the object of criticism from other member states.
Responding to Roquefort producers who went to the mat over the labelling of their product in early October, the French Minister of Agriculture, Julien Denormandie, has called for a “review of the methodology” behind the Nutri-Score. At the beginning of October, the General Confederation of Roquefort, unhappy with the unfavorable classification of the famed sheep’s cheese (classified D and E), asked for an exemption.
During a convention of France’s National Association of Elected Representatives of Mountain Districts (ANEM) in Grand-Bornand (Haute-Savoie), the minister directed a number of points of criticism against this system which impacts “mountain products in particular.” He also criticized a methodology based on quantities and “classifications that do not necessarily correspond to actual eating habits.”(1)
Nutri-Score opponents of the world unite
The revolt of the cheese makers, while it may seem unprecedented in France, echoes all too many past episodes. Indeed, far from enjoying unanimous approval, the Nutri-Score system is constantly sparking protests all over Europe. After the Spanish olive oil producers, Italian cheese and ham producers spoke out, and from there, other countries came forward to defend their culinary traditions. A coalition was even formed last year to counter the push for Nutri-Score, bringing together Italy, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Cyprus, Greece, and Romania.
Opponents of Nutri-Score denounce what they consider to be an aberration, if not a scandal: while the dietary virtues of the Mediterranean diet have been proven without a doubt, it turns out that the most iconic products of Mediterranean cuisine all get a bad Nutri-Score grade.
The reason for this is that the designers of the French algorithm have a fierce hatred of saturated fat, as Professor Philippe Legrand explained in an interview with the European Scientist. Nutri-Score does not take into account the fact that the fight against fat is totally outdated. On the contrary, it has made that fight the spearhead of its algorithm. As Professor Legrand told us: “In the Nutriscore, all oils are classified between C and E and most of them between D and E. Why do they incur this punishment when they should range from A to E, according to their levels of essential fatty acids, omega-6, omega-3, and saturated fatty acids? Their original sin is unforgivable, ‘they’re fat.’ It’s still a bit of a shock to learn that even diet sodas were ranked higher than fruit juices and olive oil by the Nutriscore.”
A growing number of demands for exemptions
With that in mind, it is not surprising to see more and more requests for exemptions. As most of the experts critical of Nutri-Score point out, its greatest fault is that it claims to be a one-size-fits-all rule for diets, whereas the latest scientific findings tend to show that in this area, a tailor-made approach is actually more appropriate.
For example, research by the Weizmann Institute in Israel shows that each person has an individualized reaction to a given type of food. It would therefore be a serious mistake to direct consumers towards standardized nutritional profiles when what they really need are tailor-made recommendations.
The Nutri-Score approach seems all the more outdated given that there are now smartphone applications that allow for precisely this kind of tailor-made diet (read our interview with Raphael Sirtoli for more on this subject).
As such, it is only natural that each type of food is now claiming its right to an exemption. Individual consumers, after all, aren’t the only ones to suffer collateral damage from an overly simplistic system; traditional diets, with all their local particularities, are also at risk.
Natural vs. processed products
Finally, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Nutri-Score largely favors industrial food products and disadvantages unprocessed and natural foods. As Dr. Rafael Moreno Rojas pointed out to the European Scientist, while the former can modify their ingredients and make-up to be more compatible with the algorithm, it is much more complicated (if not impossible) to modify a traditional recipe.
There are clear grounds for skepticism when one sees fast-food chains proudly displaying the algorithm: “67% of KFC products, including desserts and side dishes, managed to obtain the 3 best Nutri-Score scores and 59% are classified either ‘A’ or ‘B’.”
Should we be choosing this kind of food over traditional cheeses and charcuterie, which hardly ever manage to go beyond a D grade? Indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this kind of argument taken up by those prone to conspiracy theories, who are already convinced that the traffic light is an instrument used by the food industry to crush local gastronomic traditions. How can we bring the debate back onto solid scientific ground?
Evaluating the science behind Nutri-Score
In a recent webinar, Dr. Francesco Visioli from the University of Padova and Dr. Ramon Estruch from the University of Barcelona debated the scientific basis of Nutri-Score. They came to the conclusion there was nothing scientific about the label, and that it jeopardized consumer choice by misleading consumers.
According to both experts, the algorithm used by the Nutri-Score is arbitrary and can be easily manipulated. The proof: healthy foods from the Mediterranean diet are poorly rated. On top of that: “the nutrients contained in the food are evaluated in an arbitrary way;” in fact, processed foods are favored because their ingredients can be modified. Finally, it is the overall diet that should be considered in terms of dietetics, and not the types of comparisons between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods that Nutri-Score makes by distributing scores.
As such, these experts prefer and recommend a Nutrinform-type solution that simply informs consumers and gives them a tool that empowers them to choose for themselves, instead of infantilizing them.
It is well worth noting that the best available nutritional science shows us that the worst mistake would be to entrust our diets to an algorithm that spoon-feeds choices to us. All the more so when it is programmed in accordance with an old-fashioned ideology that believes everyone should eat the same foods and avoid others, and that is infatuated with a rearguard action such as the fight against saturated fats.
I am looking forward to seeing how the French EU presidency will handle this issue and whether it will side with science. European consumers, but also European countries and their local traditions, would have everything to gain.
(3)While traditional or ‘appellation contrôlée’ products are at a disadvantage because they cannot alter their recipes, the major food corporations will have an advantage because, according to Dr. Moreno Rojas: “They base their production on the ‘formulation’ of the product, and can easily adapt the composition to conform to a better classification, without this necessarily implying a nutritional improvement. For example, by replacing the intrinsic sugars provided by their natural ingredients with food additives that provide sweetness (and reduce sugars and calories), after which they need to use flavorings to disguise the absence of the original ingredient, as well as colors, thickeners, stabilizers etc. that are required to make the food look like the original thing.”
Interview with Professor Philippe Legrand: “Not all French experts agree on Nutriscore”
Interview with Raphael Sirtoli, co-founder of Nutrita: is FOP food labelling built on junk science ?
Setting the European table: a 27-star or a tricolour menu? Poland wonders about Nutri-Score
Will Nutriscore founder on the slippery issue of Spanish olive oil?
Could better dietary choices prepare us for the world after COVID-19?
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