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A Nutri-Score Critique

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In recent years, the rise of nutritional labeling systems has colored the shelves of many supermarkets. Systems came and went, and in 2017, the government of France1 came up with yet another unified scoring system: the Nutri-Score. The goal is, as the official document states, to allow consumers to compare the overall nutritional value of food products from the same group, to make an informed decision among similarly packed products.

A Nutri-Score is a very simple label that goes from green (A—B) to yellow (C) and red (D–E), with green obviously being “healthier” than the red values. Since 2019, Belgium has joined France and Spain in the adoption of the label, and more and more Belgian supermarkets are repackaging and reprinting their products to include a Nutri-Score. The hope is for the whole EU to join in, but of course there is no way to unilaterally impose this, and of course some countries such as Italy and Greece are opposed to the label, claiming that “it puts the Mediterranean diet to a disadvantage”.

The BMEL in Germany promotes: 'Simply Eating Better' with a Nutri-Score.

How is a score calculated? By adding positive and negative points that are derived from the basic properties of every type of food: global energy (your classic kcal), fat (saturated gets the separate treatment), carbohydrates a.k.a. sugars, salt, fibers, proteins, and very strangely, a “fruit and vegetable percentage” component. The food market chain Delhaize explains it on their site, and you can also calculate it yourself.

Every type of food has its own table with points. For example, if breakfast cereal with 300 kcal per 100 g (4 points) contains > 18 g sugars, that’s 4 more points. If it contains > 6 g saturated fat, that’s another 6 points. Those can get reduced by 4 if it contains > 3.7 g fibers and again by 4 if it contains > 6.4 g protein. 4 + 4 + 6 - 4 - 4 = 6 points in total = score D according to another index table. Great, so better let that stay in the store, right?

The problem is that some applied Nutri-Scores are downright weird. I’ve seen:

  • Bagged pure chamomile tea labeled as B (??);
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (first press) labeled as C, D, and E (??);
  • Various milk chocolate bars being labeled as less ‘bad’ than the pure ones (??);

Reducing a complex number of components to a simple 5-scale model simply does not work. There is no minerals column in any of the tables. Salt is seen as very negative while kitchen salt is much more worse than unprocessed sea salt. Olive oil is mostly seen as D or E because the Nutri-Score system calculates its label based on an intake of 100 g. Who gobbles up a hundred grams/ml of pure oil? (Hence the Mediterranean complaint) Why does a lot of fiber and proteins reduce the ‘bad’ numbers? A diet of too much of those is not exactly called balanced either. Why is having more than 22.5 g sugar and more than 5 g fat treated equally, while the sugar part is clearly much worse (hence the milk chocolate being more ‘appealing’)?

This is essentially the same problem as trying to come up with a single-digit creativity assessment: if you break down all components into abstract numbers, you turn a blind eye to the systemic whole that is perhaps equally important.

Another very important problem concerns the part I put in bold above: you can only compare scores of products from the same group. Olive oil with a score of C is obviously not healthier than chocolate with a score of D. The problem is that the Nutri-Score system isn’t at all explained in the shop, and when you throw stuff into the shopping cart, you inevitably end up comparing these scores across groups. Which groups are there anyway?

I get its appeal: there is certainly a need for a simple, intuitive, and understandable nutritional labeling system. I hope since the Nutri-Score is placed front and center on the packaging, people will start thinking and being more critical with their purchases. But there was already something like this present: it’s called an ingredients list.

I’d much rather follow Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food rule of thumb:

  • (a) if the ingredients list contains more than 7 items, raise a red flag;
  • (b) if one of the ingredients sounds like something your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, raise a red flag.

The problem is that most people don’t think (when it comes to food). Nutri-Score isn’t going to change that. Perhaps it’ll make things even worse: they’ll start saying “hey, this is B, and that’s C, so I’ll go with B, thank you very much!”, while in fact the C product has less processed ingredients and perhaps more nutritional value.

Problem number three is that Nutri-Scores are being abused in the supermarket competition. Since the nutritional tables that dictate positive/negative numbers, which lead up to a score, can be misused to reduce a gram here and add some more junk there, processed food is getting more processed instead of less, just to impress us consumers with a cool looking green label. There are some open investigations against major food chains that have been caught doing this.

To make matters worse (problem number four?)—this is yet another label that isn’t backed up by scientific studies:

Thus far, no study of the application of the effect of the application of a full-coloured Nutri-Score on food labels in a whole supermarket assortment exists, so the efficacy of Nutri-Score in a realistic supermarket setting is unknown.

Conducting such a study right now would introduce a lot of bias since supermarkets are throwing discounts into the wager. Are you buying that healthy muesli because of its label or because it’s cheaper? Perhaps the nudging effect introduces a shame-effect: who wants to be seen as the person with a cart full of alarmingly reddish D labels? That might just do the trick!

However, we’re still not fixing the core of the problem: getting people more involved with what they eat. If you really want to eat healthy, you’ll have to invest time in getting to know your raw ingredients and produce. Where does it come from? How do I combine this with that? Does all that fat in this chocolate really matter? Should I never eat cake with real butter ever again?

We should perhaps stop buying canned pesto and instead dust off that mortar and pestle. Don’t forget to buy that D-labeled olive oil. Just don’t use a hundred grams.

  1. Read the original proposal here↩︎

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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