As part of the Farm to Fork (F2F) plan launched by Brussels, the debate over front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FOPNL) is in full swing and now concerns every EU member country. Poland, the latest country to discover what officials in Brussels are up to, may be in for a few surprises with regard to its food traditions, should France’s Nutri-Score end up as the system chosen. This is an issue I recently expounded upon in the columns of the Polish journal Wszystko co najwazniejsze; we are republishing my column here on the European Scientist.
Europe in search of a food labelling system
In early October, the members of Germany’s Bundesrat voted to authorise German food brands to begin using Nutri-Score. Germany thus joins France, Belgium and Spain in the group of countries that have opted for this labelling system of French origin. Standing in opposition to them is a coalition of seven member states – including two members of the Visegrad Group – led by Italy and also including the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania. These countries have joined forces to counter Nutri-Score and want to establish a set of principles for determining the right nutritional labelling system for the EU from amongst the candidates under consideration. We need to keep in mind that all these initiatives are playing out within the framework of the F2F (Farm to Fork) plan. We should also note that Italy supports a competing labelling system called Nutrinform.
An outside observer of this controversy over the harmonisation of front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FOPNL) in the EU might think this is yet another esoteric quarrel between member countries. And yet, as we shall see, the stakes of this contest are actually quite high, because they concern the dietary choices of each member country, and therefore those of each EU citizen.
A simplistic colour-coded system to make shopping easier for consumers?
In Poland, Polish consumers who shop at Auchan Polska may have already come across the Nutri-Score system.
Supporters of this system insist on the fact it is one step ahead of its competitors, primarily because it has been present on French retail shelves for two years now. We could sum up the “Nutri-Score philosophy” by saying it is a question of pre-digesting nutritional information in order to condition consumers by making them react viscerally to a colour: a product marked A green is strongly recommended, while a red E is to be avoided. Nutri-Score’s designers, who were inspired by the English traffic light labelling system, believe that colours can easily influence habits.
However, this oversimplifying approach is not everyone’s cup of tea, and is even strongly criticised by some experts. Francesco Capozzi, professor at the Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences in Bologna and founder of the Foodonomics discipline, says of Nutri-Score: “We have been working to let the consumer receive adequate food education. Do we really have to begin treating our citizens like children?”
A biased, anti-fat algorithm
But what consumer wouldn’t want a system that facilitates choice to the point where he or she no longer has to ask questions? Isn’t this everyone’s dream? Alas, there is a downside to this. If some experts have gone so far as to say such systems would like to turn consumers into “Pavlov’s dogs”, to use an expression used by Guy-André Pelouze in Le Monde, it is because this oversimplification produces misleading guidance.
Indeed, as Professor Legrand, another food specialist, remarks about Nutri-Score: ” it does not provide information on the composition of the food but gives an overall verdict on the food. It is no more and no less than an opinion or a judgment. As a source of scientific information, it falls short.” Moreover, the judgement in question is “biased or ill-judged because it is based on an algorithm that is not visible to the consumer”. That’s for good reason, according to this particular expert, who led a commission of the ANSES (French Food Safety Agency) and holds that the Nutri-Score algorithm is wrong on lipids: “In lipid nutrition, the recommended intake (RDA) indicates a percentage of fat between 35 and 40% of the energy intake in the diet, and consumption in France is 37%, which is perfect. So why do we see this violent anti-fat bias in the Nutriscore algorithm? It is outdated and has no basis, even though at the individual level, many people consume too much carbohydrate and lipid energy in relation to their energy expenditure”.
Poles will soon have to worry about this issue surrounding lipids.
Poland’s tables see red!
These experts’ criticisms of Nutri-Score reflect, in a way, the corollary issue of “the EU we want”. Is it a European Union that respects the differences between each member country, or is it a system that wants to impose not only the same rules, but also the same customs on each country? This is a real question to ask because the choice of Nutri-Score, with its tendency to think about what we should eat, would bring with it an element of uniformity that would end up favouring certain types of diets to the detriment of others.
Italians, but also Spaniards, were the first to notice the system’s bias towards the Mediterranean diet, which is heavily penalised by Nutri-Score. How can we not react to the fact that olive oil, or Parma ham, which are known to be very healthy products, are rated less highly than certain sugary soft drinks? Seeing this nonsense, Italian politicians did not shy away from asking whether Nutri-Score was intended to help consumers or boost certain food brands.
The day they discover the flagship products of the Polish culinary tradition, such as Kabanosy, Kielbaski Slaskie, Ptasie Mleczko or even the famous Oscypki from Zakopane get the worst possible mark (a red E), Polish consumers will likely be in for the same shock as their counterparts in the countries which have joined the anti-Nutri-Score coalition and who feel their cultures are under attack. The orange D grade awarded to the Filety Sledziowe and the Majonez Kielecki are unlikely to console them.
Personally, I know and appreciate Polish cuisine, and I know that it is healthy because it is essentially based on products that are minimally processed, which is nowadays a valuable quality prized by dieticians. Unfortunately, if the Nutri-Score system is chosen by Brussels, the traditional products of Polish cuisine will be badly rated, just like those of the Mediterranean culinary traditions. Subjected to this reductive algorithm, which arbitrarily hunts for fat in an undifferentiated manner, will Poles be pushed away from their culinary traditions and start following the same diet as the French, who are increasingly under the thumb of the Nutri-Score indicator and are subjected to its daily propaganda? In France, almost all products are now labelled with Nutri-Score. Advertisements mention it, and I often find myself wondering how certain food products managed to obtain their precious green A! (1)
Let there be no doubt about it. If we get to a point where all European countries adopt this very skewed rating system, it will be yet another reason for some to start thinking Brussels wants to penalise local cuisines, an important element of each country’s national identity. But before we get there, Poland can make its voice heard at the Commission and join the coalition of countries who think our food is far too serious a subject to be boiled down to a traffic light, when Europe could instead look like a 27-star restaurant.
(1) I saw an advertisement on TV for a brand of chocolate cereal that boasted an A from Nutri-Score! Imagine all the parents who will hear this message and rush to feed their children with this ultra-sweet, ultra-processed product in the belief that it does them good.