USDA Report: Dutch scientists argued that Nutri-Score ratings do not always align with national dietary guidelines

Dutch scientists argue that Nutri-Score ratings do not always align with national dietary guidelines, that the label can be misleading, and that it can undermine consumer trust. To address the criticism, a scientific committee was set up by the Netherlands and seven European countries (that were using or implementing Nutri-Score). The Committee’s mandate is to research possibilities for improving Nutri-Score’s alignment with national dietary guidelines.

Use of Nutri-Score in the Netherlands is currently voluntary and is not mandatory for food exporters targeting the Dutch market. However, foreign food manufacturers may increasingly find they are competing against European products that carry the label. If a producer decides to use the Nutri-Score label on a product, its use is required on all its products sold (i.e., a producer cannot put the label on some products and not others).

Nutri-Score’s introduction has not been without its critics. The government of Italy has voiced heavy criticism because it feels that Nutri-Score discredits the Mediterranean diet.

Italian Minister of Agriculture, Teresa Bellanova, explains:

“We are against Nutri-Score… and we will present a scientific study hoping that other countries will understand that we should not punish consumers but educate them.”

In November 2021, Italy’s Antitrust Authority launched an official investigation into Nutri-Score. The country is also developing an alternative nutrition labeling scheme, the “Nutrinform battery.” An online campaign in Europe, known as the No-Nutriscore Alliance, has also popped up.

The Dutch government also received criticism on Nutri-Score by means of a letter from communication agency, Voedingsjungle, backed by more than 175 Dutch scientists and (food) professionals.21 The focus of the scientific debate in the Netherlands is on how some products can receive a favorable Nutri-Score rating (A or B) while Dutch dietary guidelines simultaneously advise against eating some of those products.

Nutri-Score’s algorithm contains several mechanisms that attribute to these concerns:

  1. The algorithm aims to reduce the consumption of “negative” components (linked to noncommunicable diseases or risk factors for obesity, diabetes, and cancer), but these ingredients can be offset by the inclusion of other inputs. High levels of “negative” components (energy {kilojoules or kJ}, saturated fats, sugars, and sodium) may be offset by the presence of “positive” components: fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and rapeseed, walnut and olive oil (which are all linked to a lower mortality risk). For example, some Dutch scientists have lamented that sugary breakfast cereals can receive an ‘A’ or ‘B’ Nutri-Score rating, whereas such cereals are not recommended under the national dietary guidelines.
  2. The algorithm might not always point towards the most nutritionally advantageous food, for several reasons:
    • It takes seven parameters into account across four broad food categories (i.e., general food, cheeses, fats and beverages). For example, whole wheat bread and white bread can receive ‘A’ ratings, whereas Dutch dietary guidelines only recommend consumption of whole wheat bread.
    • It does not consider the food preparation method. Scientists argue this becomes apparent with products requiring frying before consumption.
    • It does not consider a product’s mineral and vitamin content. Scientists argue this becomes apparent when comparing fresh fruit and canned fruit.
  3. Lastly, the algorithm does not account for serving size. Pizza, for example, can score a ‘B’ or ‘C’ rating, and olive oil (after a revision of Nutri-Score’s algorithm) will always receive a ‘C’ rating. However, not all foods are consumed equally. Even though pizza provides an acceptable amount of energy per 100 grams, very few consumers will only eat 100 grams of pizza. Energy intake in one sitting therefore will probably surpass dietary guideline recommendations. The opposite holds true for olive oil, which is usually used sparingly. Still, even though pizza is not recommended by dietary guidelines, it might be perceived by consumers as moderately healthy due to a ‘B’ or ‘C’ rating. Moreover, olive oil, which is recommended by dietary guidelines, might be perceived by consumers as somewhat unhealthy, due to its ‘C’ rating.

Scientists who have expressed concern note that consumers may believe that the healthiest choice is made by choosing a higher Nutri-Score rating when, in fact, they are just making the more nutritionally favorable choice within the algorithm. Their fear is that the lack of conformity with dietary guidelines might even confuse consumers, which may lead to diminished consumer trust in the Nutri-Score system.

It is possible that consumers may alter their buying decisions based on Nutri-Score ratings and that food manufacturers may need to adapt products to better fit Nutri-Score. However, there are many in the food sector who question the initiative, even though Nutri-Score’s algorithm is currently under re-evaluation to address criticism that Nutri-Score, in its current form, might contribute towards consumers making choices that are not in line with dietary guidelines.

In February 2022 this debate reached a new milestone after a complaint was filed with the Dutch Advertising Code Committee, by the communication agency involved in the Dutch debate on Nutri-Score. Supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, was targeted for its preliminary use of Nutri-Score (before Nutri-Score’s official introduction {and anticipated adaptation} by the Dutch government). The plaintiffs state that until Nutri-Score is implemented in Dutch law, it is an unauthorized health claim and therefore may not be used. A ruling is expected in the near-term. Prior to this, the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport allegedly had already reached out to Albert Heijn, requesting it stop its preliminary advertising of Nutri-Score.

More information on the status of the Nutri-Score system in the Netherlands can be found in the report prepared on behalf of United States Department of Agriculture:

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