Never has the subject of Front-of-package food labels (FOPL) been so hotly debated in Europe. On Tuesday, December 15th, an Agriculture and Fisheries Council of ministers took place in Brussels (1) during which member states did not succeed in agreeing on a harmonised system (2). The Germans, who chaired, pushed for mandatory Nutriscore labeling, while Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic are still opposed to this solution. The debate focused on the possibility of having a science-based labeling system and Janusz Wojciechowski, the European Commissioner for Agriculture whose job was to encourage all to agree, concluded the session by promising that any future labeling proposal would be based on well-founded science. But is this possible? Raphael Sirtoli addresses the question in depth in the following analysis.
Front-of-package food labels (FOPLs) have invaded our shelves without our paying much attention. Consumers may have noticed small colorful labels appearing on food packaging, in an attempt to facilitate healthy nutritional choices. Since the subject is currently under discussion at a European level within the framework of the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), the scientific validity of the concept must be called into question.
Dietary recommendations and benchmarks built on poor science and insufficient data
In order to get a better understanding of the origin of FOPL systems we need, to delve into the history of food science. The guidelines of nutritional science can be found in the history of American society. As Anahad O’Connor reports in the New York Times, the US Department of Agriculture’s Nutrition Service drafted their dietary guidelines in 1977 off the back of biased studies produced in the late 1950s, in a bid to explain to American citizens what they should eat (3). The guidelines were drawn up hastily due to the rising number of cardiovascular diseases in the US at the time. It is this imprecise and rushed-through research which acts as a foundation, influencing dietary recommendations to this day and, by default, the resulting by-products – such as FOPL systems.
The poor science of dietary recommendations is therefore founded on a flawed process, since biased scientific studies engender policies that are decided based on these results. Consumers are told to consume more grains and more carbohydrates but less fat… unfortunately, none of these nutritional hypotheses has ever been corroborated by serious scientific studies. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that food labels assign ‘scores’ based on bad science.
Lessons from evolutionary biology
Today, serious theories on human nutrition draw knowledge from evolutionary biology. However, when writing up dietary recommendations in the late 1970s, dietitians did not take into account studies with sufficient evidence on diverse nutritional needs and specific metabolic contexts of different macronutrients.
But these studies are of utmost importance, not least because of the large portion of the population which is overweight or suffering from chronic illnesses and therefore has needs that are very different from the statistical average. Thus, for some vitamins and minerals, the ‘experts’ have used only epidemiological averages rather than concrete science. Unfortunately, most of the FOPL scores – and in particular Nutriscore – reflect this lack of knowledge. The recommendations are largely unfeasible, leading to nutritional paradoxes and fundamental errors.
FOPL systems ostensibly aim to prevent the wrong decisions, an aim which is at the origin of dietary recommendations, but this doesn’t necessarily work in every case. Instead, what follows is further obesity, diabetes and metabolic issues. The scores cover up these issues and justify the industry’s flaws. The scheme awards Chocapic cereal an A, while sardines can be assigned a C! The FOPL, therefore, propagates scientifically unfounded nonsense.
Rewriting the bad science of food scoring
The factors these simplistic scores fail to take into consideration can be handled by a single smartphone app, further proving the non-scientificity of FOPL. Choosing one’s food according to metabolic parameters, for example, is impossible with a FOPL; yet this option is essential because we are not all equal when it comes to our reactions to the same food products. If we consider a vital parameter such as insulin, each individual needs to understand that their metabolism can react to different foods in both positive and negative ways. An insulin index can be established by assigning a score between 0 and 10. In this way, people will be informed that if they ingest certain foods, they will secrete more insulin. Based on this data, they will be able to pick and choose how they organise their diet. This is particularly essential information for those with diabetes or trying to lose weight. In addition to being logical, this parameter is measurable, tangible, verifiable in a laboratory and supported by evolutionary biology, since our ancestors didn’t consume as much insulinogenic food.
Using this type of indicator, someone who would like to lose weight can do so by favoring foods with low insulin levels, identifiable using the Nutrita insulin score (4) – the application developed by my team. It keeps an eye on dietary insulin load as well as a ‘keto’ score, which allows people to choose foods that promote nutritional ketosis, which is the best treatment for type 1 and 2 diabetes. The third and final indicator is the Nutrient Density Score. This is the team’s scientific ‘gem’ since it takes into account several physiological factors that are not included in government recommendations, unfortunately. For example, the bioavailability of micronutrients (5) and their equivalence in terms of active and inactive versions. In this way consumers can choose foods according to their individual metabolic, vitamin and mineral needs.
This parenthesis brings us to a major shortcoming of FOPLs, namely that they do not take into account whether a vitamin is active or inactive, or rather whether it comes from a plant or an animal. Yet these parameters are essential because they determine a substantial difference. Beta-carotene from carrots, for example, is not an active form of vitamin A. It must be converted to the active form, called retinol. There is a significant difference in nutritional density between the two because eating a carrot is, of course, not the same as eating the beef equivalent…. Unfortunately, once again, FOPLs do not make these distinctions. For the scores to be considered scientifically accurate, all these parameters must be considered.
Industries, from pharmaceuticals to food and beverage to retail, have no intention of changing now. These actors mainly produce low value-added foods that are addictive (e.g. pasta, pastries, candy…). As for the consumer, they are often misled despite their best intentions and the FOPLs currently in use reinforce this vicious circle between the industry and the addicted consumer. Dietetics is still a young discipline and is stuck in the middle ages scientifically. If it adopts Darwin’s theory (and a little common sense) it will progress in leaps and bounds!