With Kellogg’s decision to adopt the much-debated Nutri-Score labelling scheme for its cereal products, the already polarising debate in the EU regarding different food labelling schemes is only set to intensify.
Brussels has been debating a front-label approach for food products for years to help consumers make well-informed choices. Nutri-Score is one of the labelling systems proposed and has been implemented partially in countries like France and Belgium, with Germany to follow suit this year.
However, Nutri-Score is not enjoying unanimous support. Italy, for example, has criticised Nutri-Score and has proposed its own “battery”-labelling system.
What is the Nutri-Score?
A French product, the Nutri-Score system assesses the nutritional value of packaged products and labels them using a sliding scale. The healthiest products are marked with a green A and those deemed most unhealthy are marked with a red E. The assessment is based on an algorithm which allocates negative points to nutrients like saturated fats, calories, sugar and sodium and positive ones for the proportion of fruits, vegetables, proteins and fibres in the product.
This scaling has been criticised for being overly reductionist as it inherently red-flags foods like olive oil, cheese and cured meats as harmful due to their fat content. As such, Nutri-Score tends to disproportionally discriminate against diets heavy in oil, fish and fruit, such as the Mediterranean diet, widely considered beneficial for well-being.
The algorithm does not account for the positive benefits of eating certain products in moderation even though dieticians recommend them as healthy sources of good fats and proteins. Hence, the main criticism of this “traffic-light” system is that it oversimplifies nutritional content in a manner that is misleading and could make consumers eliminate entire food groups at the expense of their health.
The alternative: the battery-labelling system
This system was proposed in response to Nutri-Score’s shortcomings by the Italian government. Listing and calculating all the major nutrients in the product as a percentage of the daily recommended intake, the battery label is regarded as more comprehensive. By going into details, this method provides a more accurate description of type of nutrients and their amount contained in a product.
It is less alarmist than the Nutri-Score scheme since it does not reduce food items into broad green or red, or good and bad categories. The battery system consequently allows for a more informed choice, where consumers are enabled to see the consumption of high-fat and high-protein food, like salami for example, in the context of their overall diet.
Although Italy is the staunchest critic of the traffic-light system in the EU, other countries have also expressed their reservations in implementing the Nutri-Score system. In the countries where it has been implemented, like in France, the labelling is not mandatory and depends upon the discretion of the producers.
Given that lifestyle and nutrition related diseases are on the rise across the European Union, consumers need to be educated so that they can make healthy and sustainable decisions organically. While Nutri-Score might appear to be a simpler system at first glance, owing to its colouring scale and letters, its simplicity could backfire by misleading customers into exchanging healthy food products for unhealthier ones. For example, trading off olive oil for a sugar-free soda.
Considering the public health impact of food labels, the EU has still a long way to go before making any one system mandatory across the board.
Image credit: Smabs Sputzer/Flickr.
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As a member of the “Étude Nutrinet-Santé” currently running in France (since 2010), I had the privilege of attending a meeting in 2016 chaired and addressed by Prof. Serge Hercberg, with several of his assistants, presenting the proposed “Nutri-Score”.
I had one question for the esteemed professor:
“Concerning the five-coloured labelling system: energy values; carbohydrates (including sugars); fatty acids, saturated in particular; and salt; complemented by the quantities of fibre, protein, fruits and vegetables
“What is the point of indicating salt content, considering that many studies, for example that by Profs. Mente, O’Donnell, et al., published in the Lancet on 20th May 2016 (ref. 1), or that in JAMA, 4th May 2011, by Stolarz-Skrzypek, Kuznetsova et al (ref. 2), indicate not only that salt is not damaging to health, but that consumption that is too low is much more dangerous for cardiovascular health than consumption that is too high?
“And what is the point of indicating a high proportion of saturated fats, considering that studies such as that by Chowdhury et al (ref. 3) show that there is no relationship between fat consumption and cardiovascular disease, and other studies such as that in Cancer & Metabolism, 6 April 2016 by Monzavi-Karbassi, Gentry, Kaur et al (ref. 4) have shown that the best indicator for the prognosis of breast cancer is not fat consumption at all, but blood sugar levels?
“Does this system not actually look like a set of warnings against werewolves, zombies and witches?”
Poor Prof. Hercberg could only reply that science is difficult, that nutrition is an inexact science, and that all he and his colleagues could do was to communicate what they considered to be the best information available.
That of course was precisely the mistake made by the McGovern Committee of the US Senate in 1977, which formulated the first Dietary Goals for Americans— “Unlike scientists, politicians do not have the luxury of waiting until all the research results are in!”
Those Dietary Goals and subsequent Dietary Guidelines, slavishly imitated all round the world, may well have been responsible for more deaths than anything since the 1918 Spanish Flu, considering the soaring death toll from heart disease, obesity, hypertension and cancer that has followed on from them.
Now we see the Nutri-Score system being used to foist that same bad science on unsuspecting European consumers. Isn’t it our duty to combat it wherever possible, using real science?
(1) Associations of urinary sodium excretion with cardiovascular events in individuals with and without hypertension: a pooled analysis of data from four studies; Mente, O’Donnell, Rangarajan, Dagenais, Lear, McQueen, Diaz, et al.
(2) Fatal and Nonfatal Outcomes, Incidence of Hypertension, and Blood Pressure Changes in Relation to Urinary Sodium Excretion, Katarzyna Stolarz-Skrzypek, MD, PhD; Tatiana Kuznetsova, MD, PhD; Lutgarde Thijs, MSc et al. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=899663
(3) Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis; Rajiv Chowdhury; Samantha Warnakula; Setor Kunutsor; Francesca Crowe; Heather A. Ward; Laura Johnson; Oscar H. Franco; Adam S. Butterworth; Nita G. Forouhi; Simon G. Thompson; Kay-Tee Khaw; Dariush Mozaffarian; John Danesh; and Emanuele Di Angelantonio
(4) “The data suggest that elevated blood glucose is associated with poor prognosis of breast cancer patients. Given the potential clinical implication, these findings warrant further investigation.”
Pre-diagnosis blood glucose and prognosis in women with breast cancer
Behjatolah Monzavi-Karbassi, Rhonda Gentry, Varinder Kaur, Eric R. Siegel, Fariba Jousheghany, Srikanth Medarametla, Barbara J. Fuhrman, A. Mazin Safar, Laura F. Hutchins and Thomas Kieber-Emmons
Cancer & Metabolism 20164:7 DOI: 10.1186/s40170-016-0147-7 Published: 6 April 2016