On January 1, 2022, France begins its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. Ahead of the upcoming term, a small stone has slipped into the shoes of French leaders: Nutri-Score. This beacon-based nutritional labelling system has been in use in French retail outlets since 2016 and is now enjoying the full attention of the European Commission which is looking for an ideal candidate for its FOP (front of the pack) labelling system. However, Nutri-Score faces competition from other systems and is increasingly subject to criticism from other member states.
FRENCH ROQUEFORT CHEESE
Responding to the Roquefort producers who stepped up to the mat on the labelling of their products at the beginning of October, French agriculture minister Jules Denormandie called for a “review of the methodology” used in Nutri-Score.At the beginning of October General Confederation in Roquefort dissatisfied with the unfavourable classification of the famous sheep’s cheese in the Nutri-Score system (class D and E) asked for an exception to be created.
OPPONENTS OF NUTRI-SCORE SYSTEM JOIN FORCES
Although it may seem unprecedented in France, the revolt of the cheesemakers is having a major impact. Indeed, the system does not enjoy unanimous approval, the Nutri-Score continually provokes protests throughout Europe. After the Spanish olive oil producers, Italian cheese and ham producers have spoken out, and from there other countries have come out in defence of their cultural culinary traditions. A coalition was even formed last year to counter the pressure on Nutri-Score , bringing together Italy, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Cyprus, Greece and Romania.
The opponents of the Nutri-Score are denouncing what they consider to be an aberration if not a scandal: even though the dietary qualities of the Mediterranean diet have undoubtedly been proven, it turns out that the most iconic Mediterranean products receive low scores in the Nutri-Score system.
The reason for this is that the designers of the French algorithm fiercely hate saturated fats as professor Filip Legrand explained in an interview with European Scientist. Nutri-Score does not take into account the fact that the fight against fat is completely outdated. On the contrary, he has made this fight the stronghold of his algorithm. As professor Legrand told us: “in the Nutri-Score all oils are classified between C and E and most of them between D and E. Why do they suffer this penalty when they should be between A an E depending on their levels of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fats and saturated fatty acids? Their original sin is unforgivable, “they are fat”. It is still shocking to learn that even diet sodas have been ranked by Nutri-Score higher than fruit juices and olive oil.
GROWING NUMBER OF EXEMPTIONS
With this in mind, it is not surprising that there are more and more requests for exemptions. As most experts critical of Nutri-Score point out, its biggest flaw is that it claims to be a one-size-fits-all diet rule, while recent scientific findings show that in this area an individual approach is actually more appropriate.
For example, research by the Weizmann Institute in Israel shows that each person has an individual response to a particular type of food. It would therefore be a serious mistake to direct consumers towards standardized nutritional profiles when what they really need are recommendations tailored to their needs.
The Nutri-Score approach seems all the more outdated as there are now smartphone applications that allow such a tailored diet.
Therefore, it is natural that every type of food claims an exemption. After all, individual consumers are not the only ones who suffer collateral damage from an over-simplified system. Traditional diets are also under threat with all their local characteristics.
NATURAL AND PROCESSED PRODUCTS
Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Nutri-Score largely favours industrial foods and harms unprocessed and natural foods. As Rafael Moreno Rojas, PhD, pointed out to European Scientist, while the former can modify their ingredients and production methods to be more in line with the algorithm, it is much more complicated, if not impossible, to modify traditional recipes.
Should we choose this kind of food over traditional cheese and charcuterie which rarely manage to go beyond class D? Indeed, it would not be surprising if these kinds of arguments were taken up by people prone to conspiracy theories who are already convinced that traffic lights are a tool used by the food industry to crush local gastronomic traditions. How do we bring the debate back to the solid science?
EVALUATION OF THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS OF THE NUTRI-SCORE
In a recent webinar, Dr Francesco Visioli from the University of Padua and Dr Ramon Estruch from the University of Barcelona discussed the scientific basis of the Nutri-Score. They concluded that the label has nothing scientific to offer and that it endangers consumer choice by misleading them.
According to both experts, the algorithm used by Nutri-Score is arbitrary and can be easily manipulated. Proof: healthy food from the Mediterranean diet is poorly rated. In addition: “ the nutrients in the food are scored in an arbitrary way”; in fact processed foods are preferred because their ingredients can be modified. Finally, in terms of dietetics, it is the overall diet that should be considered and not the kinds of comparisons between “good” and “bad” foods that the Nutri-Score makes by spreading the results.
These experts therefore prefer and recommend a type of solution that simply informs customers and gives them a tool that enables them to make their own choices instead of infantilizing them.
It is worth noting that the best available science on nutrition shows us that the worst mistake would be to entrust our diet to an algorithm that spoon-feeds us. All the more so when it is programmed according to the old fashioned ideology that everyone should eat the same and avoid others and is infatuated with backward-looking measures such as the fight against saturated fats.
I look forward to seeing how the French Presidency will deal with this issue and whether it will side with science. European consumers but also European countries and their local traditions have a lot to lose.