While Europeans were indulging in New Year celebrations, debate was growing within the new European Commission. France is once again seeking to impose its Nutri-Score system on other member states. There has thus far been no consensus on this initiative. To the contrary, it runs the risk of once again stirring up accusations of bureaucratic tropism on the part of Brussels.
A red-orange New Year’s Eve
From the “orange D” on Tipiak’s pain surprise and Picard’s frozen yule log, to the “red E” on Labeyrie’s foie gras, the Nutri-Scores for traditional French New Year’s Eve treats are all red and orange. We are already acutely aware that the holiday is a time of indulgence, and this nutritional labelling system introduced by the French health authorities does nothing but confirm this.
To see for yourself, just look for the five-coloured logo on any food packaging (from light green to red) labelled with letters (from A to E). This little label seeks to guide consumer choices in France, Belgium and Spain, on a voluntary basis. Introduced in 2017 as part of the health system modernisation law, it is inspired by – though different from – the traffic light rating system introduced in the United Kingdom in 2013.
In fact, while the latter provides information on the quantities of fat, sugar and salt in a product, the Nutri-Score is based on a calculation developed by Professor Serge Hercberg’s team. Based on 100 grams of product, it calculates the content of nutrients to prioritise (fibre, protein, fruits and vegetables) and of ones to limit (energy, saturated fatty acids, sugars, salt). Thus, each product is given an overall grade based on these parameters and is categorised as either good or bad for health.
But apart from confirming that the New Year’s menu is hardly ideal for our health, what does this grading system really teach us? Does it provide the transparency necessary for consumers to keep to their New Year’s resolutions?
More transparency but deceptive over-simplification
It seems like a given that consumers need more assistance faced with the constant innovations of a food industry seeking to increase its ever-wider range of products. But not all grading systems are created equal. It would be unfortunate to promote bad habits among the public under the pretext of “simplified messaging”. And yet this is Nutri-Score’s ambition: to simplify the consumer’s choices for them. As a representative of one of the associations lobbying for this grading system put it, “the poor nutritional quality of an overly large number of industrial foods is one of the main causes of the increased rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes,” and “the complexity of charts […] on packaging makes them unintelligible to 82% of consumers.”
And yet, as Guy André Pelouze commented about Nutri-Score in Le Monde in 2014, well before its implementation: “good intentions do not make good policies.” In his view, this kind of system risks inducing a sort of Pavlovian response in the public. Consumers would instinctively put products back on the shelf at the sight of certain colours, while others would “fill their shopping trolleys with “good” coloured products. Fortunately, eating behaviours are more complex.”
Finally, one cannot attribute to algorithms a magical power that they do not have, or suppose that blindly following them will lead to optimal health. The heart surgeon points out that what he considers the “new layer of bureaucracy” is “ineffective given the issues associated with obesity, sedentariness, tobacco use, and associated chronic diseases.”
The science of “nutritional profiles” in question
On his blog, Serge Hercberg reminds us that “the Nutri-Score, both in its construction as well as its validation, has a solid scientific basis (with more than 30 scientific publications in international peer-reviewed journals) that demonstrates its effectiveness and superiority to all other nutritional labelling systems (which don’t have such convincing scientific profiles).” It is a weighty argument, but it begs the question of why so much effort is needed to get it adopted by European authorities.
Both Nutri-Score and Traffic Light Labelling are based on the theory of using nutritional profiles to classify food as “good” or “bad”. Yet the scientific soundness of this discipline has already been brought into question by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2008 in a still-authoritative opinion in Europe. The European authority argues quite simply in this opinion that:
- The composition and nutritional effects of each food vary based on their consumption alongside other foods.
- The means of preparation and cooking can also alter the nutritional content
It should be noted that EFSA’s doubts were confirmed by multiple studies, and the fact that so many grading systems based on nutritional profiles have been developed by other states, associations and companies is one more piece of evidence highlighting the lack of scientific basis.
The Mediterranean diet on its way out?
In April of 2018, in an editorial entitled “A New Dietary Revolution in Europe?”, we reported on Dr. Aseem Malhotra’s press conference to the European Parliament. Author of the best-selling Pioppi Diet, this heart surgeon’s goal is to engage members of the European Commission to launch an awareness campaign so citizens change their eating habits to avoid relying on a large volume of medications to treat heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, for example.
The author’s suggested solution is essentially based on the Mediterranean diet, and argues that fat, which is often demonised, is not necessarily bad for health. We cannot forget that the Mediterranean diet was added to UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in 2013 and that Italy and Spain were considered some of the countries whose diets contributed to its inhabitants’ good health.
One would expect to find, then, that the major foods in these diets receive positive evaluations from Nutri-Score. Yet shockingly, this is not necessarily the case. Although Spain considered adopting the French system for its products, it ran into issues when it found that a can of Coca-Cola received a “light green B” score, while a locally produced bottle of olive oil received an “orange D”, thus ranking much lower. The rating for this local product, known for its numerous health benefits, is even more unfavourable considering that it puts it on par with a bottle of ketchup. One can imagine reactions in Spain. Once again, Serge Hercberg’s team sought to explain itself and relativize the score by pointing out that all other systems give olive oil the same classification, and yet only Nutri-Score’s grade faced criticism.
Will the new commission be more conciliatory?
While E.U. regulations on consumer nutrition facts (1169/2011) requires that clear and transparent information on the nutritional quality of each product be provided to consumers, we have seen that this isn’t really the case with grading systems based on nutritional profiles. Deceptive simplifications, science that is questioned (if not disproven) by competent European authorities, blindness on certain key products highly recommended in ancestral diets… the issues with Nutri-Score are piling up, which may explain why the system has already been rejected twice by the European Parliament in 2016. As Food Navigator puts it, “the European Parliament voted to do away with nutritional profiles”. The magazine explains that this vote, with a rather large majority of 402 in favour and 285 against, left many consumer associations, public health activists and manufacturers baffled. The two primary reasons given for this rejection were “the persistent problems related to implementation” and a possible distortion of the market. Will the solution’s proponents have a better chance with the new commission?
The future is in individualised systems, not “one size fits all”
Issues like Nutri-Score are not only scientific but political. Imposing a grading system on all E.U. countries is not a given and may give free rein to certain rumours, particularly the idea that it is a tool in a sort of disguised protectionism. Particularly if the system in question is criticised by numerous European experts. And the food industry still needs to provide consumers with more information.
The question that then arises is the choice of grading system. We know that remarkable progress has recently been made, allowing individuals to customise a detailed diet to their needs. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has performed several studies which show that each individual has a personalised reaction to any given food.
This solution seems to fly in the face of nutritional profiles. If we are moving towards the possibility of “custom” nutritional recommendations, then it is not clear why we should mistakenly shoehorn consumers into “one-size-fits-all” nutritional profiles. Do we intend to impose the same enormous French New Year’s menu on all E.U. countries? Certainly not, as that would be ridiculous. Each country has its own traditions and indulgences, as well as its own diets and New Year’s resolutions to start the year off right.
While Brussels bureaucracy is coming more and more under fire from various critics across member countries for the shortcomings of its “standardising” legislation (see our editorial on Brexit), it would do well to reflect on these considerations before imposing a single grading system on all member states.
 « Regardless of the system, olive oil is ranked lower due to its calories, total fat and saturated fat content. But curiously, if this criticism has been raised strongly in relation to Nutri-Score, nobody was offended by this classification problem when it pertained to British Traffic Lights. This did not pose any problems for consumers at the distribution chains already using this type of logo for many years (in Spain, Portugal or the United Kingdom), even though it also positions olive oil worse than Coca-Cola Zero.» https://nutriscore.blog/2019/04/20/incomprehensions-et-fake-news-concernant-nutri-score-comment-essayer-de-destabiliser-un-outil-de-sante-publique-qui-derange/
 In 2016, for example, the Italians turned to the European Commission to argue that the British, by assigning a bad grade to olive oil through their rating system, had caused olive oil producers to see exports drop. https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2016/03/16/Italy-raises-red-flag-once-more-over-UK-s-traffic-light-label