While Nutri-Score is the French government’s candidate for a long-awaited front-of-package (FOP) labelling system that the EU one day hopes to implement across its territory, it is far from the only horse in the race. With Nutrinform, Italy has presented a new serious contender.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg will be the next country to adopt the Nutri-Score front-of-package (FOP) food labelling system on a voluntary basis, with regulations governing the system set to be ready “around Easter.” The decision comes as little surprise, since its much larger neighbours France and Belgium are both already using the Nutri-Score system. At the European level, however, the news comes as just the latest salvo in an increasingly intense battle over how to inform the dietary choices of European consumers.
While Nutri-Score is the French government’s candidate for a long-awaited FOP labelling system that the EU one day hopes to implement across its territory, it is far from the only horse in the race. Italy, Nutri-Score’s harshest critic, officially presented its own “Nutrinform” labelling system to the European Commission last month, setting the stage for a bloc-wide tug-of-war that could determine how hundreds of millions of Europeans choose the food they consume.
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The Italian government has rejected Nutri-Score, which employs a colour-coded system to compare the nutritional values of food products, because it claims the France-designed system oversimplifies consumer choices, unfairly penalising traditional Italian specialities such as parmesan and olive oil because of their high fat content.
Its proposed alternative, dubbed “Nutrinform,” instead uses battery symbols to indicate the percentages of energy, fats and sugars in a recommended portion of food. Nutrinform’s proponents argue its approach frames consumption in a more logical, coherent context of optimum daily intake. According to Italy’s Agriculture Minister, Teresa Bellanova, the system “is not penalising, it does not give good or bad grades.”
Front of pack labelling: a European priority
This heated debate comes at a time when Brussels is under pressure to introduce a unified labelling system as soon as possible: it’s expected that the EC will make a recommendation on its preferred standard in just a few months’ time. Health groups – including the World Health Organisation (WHO) – are in favour of urgent change. Support for a pan-European FOP labelling approach is growing, especially in the wake of a French study that showed the EU could reduce nutrition-related deaths by more than three percent every year with mandatory FOP information on food products.
While much of the coverage surrounding the food labelling debate in Europe presents the issue as one of “Italian populists vs. the EU” – thanks to claims by Italian opposition leader Matteo Salvini that Nutri-Score was part of a plan by Brussels to undermine the reputation of Italian food – the reality is that public health officials and nutritional experts are hashing out important questions about how to approach and inform consumers.
Dispute over the best approach
The main bone of contention is the way the competing Nutri-Score and Nutrinform systems register and promote “healthy” food products. Nutri-Score’s sliding scale assigns negative points to saturated fats, calories, sugar and salt. At the same time, it allocates positive points to fruits, vegetables, proteins and fibre. It doesn’t, however, take into account the benefits of eating fats and proteins in moderation.
In that sense, Italy’s FOP alternative presents a more nuanced and comprehensive overview of a food’s nutritional value. Rather than categorising food items as red/bad versus green/good, the battery system is more subtly inviting consumers to consider their consumption of high-fat staple items like parmesan or salami in the context of their overall diet.
Because of its simplicity, Nutri-Score is undoubtedly easier to read. Yet simplicity could ultimately be its Achilles’ heel if it causes consumers to shun naturally healthy food products like olive oil, pushing them to embrace less healthy choices instead – a far-cry from a balanced diet.
Prioritising a balanced diet
And ultimately, that’s the goal of both labelling systems: getting Europeans to eat healthier, more nutritious and balanced diets that improve overall health and wellbeing. Health authorities in France are keen to improve citizens’ eating habits, in the light of alarming data that suggests more than half the country’s adult population is overweight. A study conducted by the Robert-Koch-Institute focusing on children in Germany already concluded in 2018 that 15 percent of youngsters are overweight.
Such rather alarming figures explain why national authorities want to achieve lasting changes in their populations’ dietary patterns, even if the “how” remains unclear on the European level. Rome’s response represents the view that everyone deserves to understand the full picture before deciding how to balance their diet, based on individual needs. And it’s easy to see why Italians feel so passionately about what constitutes healthy eating, given their diet is considered one of the world’s most coveted.
Rich in fruit, vegetables and fish rather than red meat, the Mediterranean diet – similar to the Japanese one – has come to be considered exceptionally beneficial for overall health. Obesity rates in Italy are 17 percent lower compared to those in the UK, while multiple studies have also shown that people at risk of heart disease are likely to improve their cardiovascular condition by swapping red meat for vegetables, fish and oils. In fact, this research suggests that heart disease can be more effectively combated with a Mediterranean-style diet than with drugs.
In the battle for a FOP labelling system, Brussels policy-makers should consider what makes a balanced diet. It is not deriding one food product as bad while praising another as good. Rather, it is encouraging informed consumer choices about what each product brings to the table. With Nutrinform arguably fulfilling these criteria more precisely, it could turn out to be the most sustainable approach.
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