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Europe's controversial Nutri-Score

Kommentatorenbild *PROVISORISCH* - DW Reporterin Kate Ferguson
Kate Ferguson
August 26, 2022

European lawmakers need to think carefully before introducing a mandatory food-labeling system across the bloc. Nutri-Score, the current top contender, is confusing and misleading, says DW's Kate Ferguson.

Nutri-Score food label
The European Union is to have a mandatory food-labeling system in place toward the end of 2022Image: picture-alliance/MAXPPP/J. Frey

Grocery shoppers of Europe unite! The European Commission is planning to introduce mandatory nutritional labeling on food packaging before the end of the year and I, a formerly befuddled and now moderately enlightened consumer, consider the front-runner flawed.

If you live in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands or Luxembourg, you might already be familiar with the Nutri-Score. It`s a color-coded system that grades food from A to E, based on its nutritional value. The healthiest options are green, the least nutritious are red and everything in between is orange or yellow. It's like a traffic light, but far more difficult to decipher.

Over the past months, I have been baffled by the ratings given to the items in my shopping basket. Orange juice, with 100% fruit content — C. Frozen pizza? B. Humous? Also B. Olive oil? C. Nesquik cocoa powder: A!

Underlying algorithm

Questionable methodology is to blame. The Nutri-Score is calculated using an algorithm. First, a product is given a rating of between 1 and 10 in each of four "bad" categories: sugar, calories, salt and saturated fat. The higher the content, the higher the number. Then it is rated between 1 and 5 in three "good" categories: fiber, proteins and another single group which includes fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, rapeseed, walnut and olive oils.

The final score is the sum of the "bad" categories minus the sum of the "good." The lower the number the better. The calculations are based on 100 grams or 100 milliliters, which goes some way towards explaining how a frozen pizza (which weighs around 400 grams) could score better than olive oil, which tends to be served in drops or drizzles.

DW columnist Kate Ferguson
DW columnist Kate Ferguson

Advocates of the Nutri-Score, which include the French government, whose public health ministry devised it, as well as the BEUC (Bureau Europeen des Unions de Consommateurs) European consumer organization, argue that the intention is not to compare products between categories, but within. Apparently, I should be comparing frozen pizzas with each other, instead of with olive oil.

This not only undermines the logic of a common scoring system, but also assumes a level of nutritional knowledge among consumers that would reduce the need for such a system in the first place.

Something missing

The Nutri-Score calculation, which gives the "bad" categories twice the weighting of the "good" ones, also has some notable omissions. Sweeteners such as glucose-fructose syrup don't feature at all. Nor do any other additives commonly used in processed food.

Unsurprisingly, this has attracted criticism, most notably from the Italian food industry, which was outraged at the poor ratings assigned to regional products like Parmigiano and Parma ham. The upset was so great that the Italian government launched an alternative nutritional scoring system in response. NutrInform Battery, accessible via an app, assigns ratings based on portion sizes as a percentage of daily recommended allowances.

The people behind Nutri-Score accuse NutrInform of having been created not to further the cause of public health, but as a result of "internal political and economic issues in Italy."

Nutri-Score food label
There are misgivings about how helpful the Nutri-Score system really is for buyersImage: picture-alliance/MAXPPP/J. Frey

Lobbying power

As things stand now, industry heavyweights like Nestle (remember that A-rated cocoa powder?), Danone and McCain are lobbying to make the Nutri-Score mandatory across the European Union.

In a letter to the European Commission, they, along with other food producers, retailers, public health officials and consumer groups cite research that shows Nutri-Score to be the best-performing scheme in aiding consumers to make healthier purchasing choices in the supermarket. The research, which compared Nutri-Score to four other front-of-package labels, asked online respondents in 12 countries to rank the healthiness of a set of three pizzas, a set of three cakes and a set of three breakfast cereals.

This methodology does not strike me as the most effective or realistic way of promoting healthy eating. When I go shopping, I don't tend to linger in the aisles deciding which of three pizzas, cakes, or breakfast cereals to buy. And even if I did, shouldn't public policy be nudging me away from frozen pizza and towards the fresh bread aisle, instead of inviting me to compare which processed junk food is marginally better than the other?

Also, aren't we forgetting that the healthiest food of all doesn't have a Nutri-Score, because it doesn't come in a packet?

Call me a skeptic, but when the big makers of chocolate and confectionery, convenience food and French fries go all in to promote a particular rating system, it's worth asking questions. For a system that is supposed to offer transparency and ease of decision-making, this consumer needed way too much time to figure it out. I'm off to eat an apple (Nutri-Score: unknown.)

Edited by: Hardy Graupner