What is the NutriScore? Why is it there? Is it necessary, useful, or effective? Consumers are asking themselves these questions and answers are not forthcoming.
The basic idea is certainly a good one; it emerges from the belief that the widespread availability of low nutrient and high calorie foods is a major cause of the epidemic of obesity and obesity-related diseases worldwide. “By empowering consumers to make healthier food choices with sensible and useful nutrition labelling, we could halt this epidemic,” emphasises Richard Shultz,Prof. of Psychology & Computer Science at McGill University1. “If consumers have the information they need to make nutritious food choices, it may encourage producers and retailers to improve their products.”
It is obvious that we are all reliant on our own resources when we enter a supermarket, single-handedly facing the overwhelming ingenuity employed by producers and retailers to sell us their products. Coca-Cola sells 1.5 billion cans of sodas a day and 54% of the soft drinks sold in France are produced by Coca-Cola. So how could we *not* try to understand how they manage to be so successful? Is the NutriScore the best tool to give consumers a chance against companies that use the population’s neurobiological data to sell the most product for the most profit?
First of all we need to look at this in context; the French, like the rest of the world, do eat very badly, which leads to a high level of obesity, diabetes, and general poor physical and mental health. It is certainly a public health issue, but to what extent should the state intervene? Is it responsible for how people eat? Is it the state’s role to ban products on the grounds that they are bad for your health?
As is often the case you can look at it from two angles: if we consider it a public health issue, it would be normal that in a country with a state-funded national health system, the department of health would try to guide consumers in their food choices. On the other hand, in some countries the population would no doubt be very surprised to see this kind of state interference at the level of supermarket shelves.
Nevertheless, in France, the Minister of Health, Mrs Buzyn, has made a decision on the matter. Health is a public issue, the state is omnipresent, and it is the state which will make your food choices. But for the system to work, a number of conditions absolutely must be met.
First of all, the French must be prepared to receive ministerial advice on what they should or should not eat.
Secondly, the minister must be absolutely convinced, based on solid scientific evidence, that the choices she is making for our people are the right ones and will not result in future scandals, as we have already seen in previous unfortunate situations. Can we be sure today that the minister is in a position to make an accurate decision between two foods on a supermarket shelf when we know now that nutritional recommendations have been wrong for the last 50 years?
It also obviously raises some serious questions about the role of the state. Is it really up to the Minister of Health to tell us what we should or should not eat? It’s certainly a philosophical or even political issue, which I suggest you give some thought to offline. As far as I am concerned, I am clear that while education may be one essential role of the state, I doubt very much that being a personal assistant is another.
Finally, as ever, we need to enquire about the conflicts of interest which can lead to us taking decisions which are sometimes clearly in opposition to the public good. When you are aware of the might of the agri-food industry these days, it’s not surprising that you may well ask yourself how the state is going to enforce Coca Cola putting a big red E on its sugary drinks…
One of the main reasons why this NutriScore is in fact a rather bad system is the fundamental error in the way the points are calculated to assign a score to each product. A major example is that a product rich in saturated fat, like butter, will have a red E NutriScore, even though it is a naturally unprocessed product which is extremely good for your health. For the same reason if we have a look at another product like “Lentils with Salted Pork” from the Jardin Bio brand, it gets an A rating on the NutriScore, even though it is a processed product with a lot of added ingredients like corn starch, glucose syrup, and raw cane sugar. So all this added sugar is not penalised by the NutriScore, which would encourage you to buy this product even though it is processed, expensive and bad for your health. And if we analyse the nutritional information, we find that the lentil product is very high in sugars, with 12.6 g of carbohydrate per 100 g compared with only 2.0 g of fat and 8.3 g of protein.
So if this system is so useful, why not make it compulsory? Only very few distributors say they want to put it into action.
In conclusion, we should note that while it is important that efforts be made to put safeguards in place to improve the population’s health, for us to require less medical care, and by the same token reduce government spending, the methods which are being implemented are inefficient and counterproductive. We could repeat the same theory for cigarettes, where informational labelling on packets has proved ineffective – a price increase of 100% or more would be an effective, but clearly intrusive solution to manage the problem.
Still, the population is becoming increasingly unwell, and the State increasingly hard up, so action must be taken. It takes political courage for things to change, and although many observers today say that a generation is being sacrificed to questionable political choices, it is high time to think about future generations and lay the groundwork for a better future for our children.
1 « The effects of nutrition labeling on consumer food choice: a psychological experiment and computational model »
Peter Helfer, Thomas R. Shultz
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, décembre 2014