Eight Common Nutri-Score Myths Debunked

  • Traffic light labels
  • Sugar, fat & salt

The Nutri-Score is gaining ground in Europe. As the label’s popularity increases, so too does the criticism from the food industry and several politicians who oppose the introduction of the consumer-friendly label in further European countries.  We fact-checked eight common myths associated with the Nutri-Score to show why they're wrong and set the record straight.

It is not the Nutri-Score label that jeopardises consumers’ freedom of choice, but the current EU model of nutrition labelling, which for many people is completely incomprehensible. In contrast, the Nutri-Score system helps consumers make informed choices by offering easy-to-understand information about how healthy or unhealthy a food product is.

The Nutri-Score does not set restrictions, but rather helps consumers recognise at a glance which product is a healthier choice – particularly in the case of processed foods like fruit yoghurts, frozen pizzas and breakfast cereals – by enabling people with no expert knowledge to easily compare products without having to study their nutritional tables at length

So far, the introduction of the Nutri-Score system has provided an incentive for many manufacturers to reduce the sugar, fat and salt content of their products. Companies have also improved their products’ Nutri-Scores by increasing the fruit and vegetable content and adding more dietary fibre. These are desirable outcomes, as experts agree that the consumption of sugar, fat and salt should be reduced, while fruits, vegetables and dietary fibre should be consumed in greater quantities.

However, food companies are also looking for low-cost solutions for improving the Nutri-Score of their products. Although there have yet to be any conclusive studies on this issue, the increased use of additives, such as sweeteners and flavour enhancers, is very likely in specific product groups. As a nutrition label, the Nutri-Score does not provide any information on additives. Obviously, the label cannot fix all shortcomings in European food legislation. To protect European consumers from the excessive use of additives and their associated health risks, we will need appropriate legislation that strictly regulates the use and labelling of additives in our food – a measure that foodwatch has been calling for for many years.

This is a bogus argument. No single measure by itself would ever be able to stop the obesity epidemic. Health experts, e.g. from the World Health Organization, paediatrician associations and diabetes societies, unanimously agree that ending the obesity epidemic will require a broad-based strategy including not only the introduction of a consumer-friendly nutrition-labelling system but also further measures, such as restrictions on marketing to children, the introduction of a soft drinks tax or binding standards for school lunches. An environment that facilitates healthy eating behaviour in everyday life instead of promoting obesity can only be created through a mutually reinforcing mix of effective measures.

The fact that the Nutri-Score alone could never solve the whole problem is not a valid argument against the individual measure but instead a convincing justification for a comprehensive policy against unhealthy dietary patterns. 

In fact, just the opposite is true. The reason that the Nutri-Score enables consumers to compare different food products objectively is that it is calculated on the basis of a uniform reference amount (100 grams or 100 millilitres). If the Nutri-Score were calculated on the basis of portion size, manufacturers would be able to manipulate the Nutri-Scores of their products through the arbitrary definition of small portions.

Another undesirable outcome of a portion-based approach is that sweets and sugary spreads appear healthier than they actually are. Take the industry’s traffic-light label, for example: with the portion-based “Evolved Nutrition Label” developed by food companies, not even Nutella would be given a red light, in spite of the fact that it contains almost 90 per cent fat and sugar. 

This claim is simply not true. For example, the Nutri-Scores for practically all products are consistent with the general dietary recommendations of the German Nutrition Society (DGE), as has been shown by the evaluation of roughly 8,500 foods on the German market. Foods whose consumption is recommended by the DGE are also rated as better choices by the Nutri-Score system. For example, 80 per cent of the products containing mainly fruits and vegetables had Nutri-Scores of A or B, while products whose consumption should be restricted according to the DGE had lower ratings: e.g. the majority of sugary snacks (93 per cent) received Nutri-Scores of D or E.

General dietary guidelines and a simplified nutrition labelling system like the Nutri-Score have different aims and are complementary. Therefore, it is neither possible nor desirable to guarantee total consistency.  
For example, when dietary guidelines recommend the regular consumption of fish and yoghurt, the Nutri-Score can help consumers choose fish products with lower salt content and yoghurt products with less sugar. 

The Nutri-Score system provides an evaluation of beverages based on the amount of positive and negative nutrients. The current version gives apple juice a yellow C because, in spite of its high content of fruit and the associated beneficial nutrients, it also contains large amounts of sugar (110 grams per litre). Juice is simply not a healthy thirst-quencher and should therefore only be consumed diluted with water or in small quantities – this fact is reflected by the Nutri-Score rating. Juices with an even higher sugar content, like red grape juice, are given a red E. 

foodwatch is critical of the fact that artificially sweetened beverages receive relatively favourable Nutri-Score ratings, because, even though these products are sugar-free, they are suspected of promoting obesity and type 2 diabetes. In order to ensure that companies will not be incentivised to use more artificial sweeteners, foodwatch is calling for less favourable Nutri-Scores for beverages containing sweeteners.

Overall these are individual examples. A scientific study of over 200,000 products shows that 80% of highly processed products receive a rather poor, i.e. yellow to red, Nutri-Score rating. The green score, on the other hand, is given to predominantly low-processed staple foods.

The Mediterranean diet is viewed as particularly healthy and well-balanced because it is characterised by a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, pulses and (wholegrain) cereals, moderate amounts of fish and dairy products and a low consumption of meat and of products that are high in sugar, fat and salt. In addition, healthy oils like olive oil are the main source of fat. This is completely in line with the classification system used by the Nutri-Score, which gives more favourable ratings to foods that are low in fat, sugar and salt, as well as high-fibre meals, fruits, vegetables, pulses and nuts. Olive oil, like rapeseed and walnut oil, is given a yellow C, which is the best rating within the category “oils” (because even though olive oil is a relatively healthy oil, it should nevertheless be consumed in smaller quantities, e.g. in comparison to fruits and vegetables).

A few Italian politicians have said that the Nutri-Score would be an attack on the Mediterranean diet because traditionally produced products like prosciutto, Parmesan and Gorgonzola would receive poor ratings. However, these claims are misleading. The Nutri-Score simply shows the nutritional quality of these products, which are indeed very high in fat and salt and should therefore be consumed in low quantities, even in the context of a Mediterranean diet. 

Judging from the fact that more than 90% of the around 500 manufacturers that are already using the Nutri-Score label in France are small or medium-sized companies, the adoption of the label does not seem to pose any major challenges to companies with smaller budgets. Registering for the use of the Nutri-Score is free of charge, and adding the logo to a product’s packaging is relatively inexpensive. Therefore, the idea that only large companies will adopt the label is a myth. 
A product does not have to be reformulated in order to use the Nutri-Score. However, a producer can usually achieve a better score by simply reducing the sugar, fat or salt content and/or increasing the fruit and vegetable content. No expensive technical experimentation is required.