News 27.04.2023

Nutri-score: foodwatch dissects common misconceptions

  • Traffic light labels

France, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland already have introduced it with success and consumers like Nutri-Score as nutritional label. In France, where the traffic-light label was introduced first in 2014, 94% of citizens support it. Despite this, junk food giants and their lobbyists are determined to undermine its introduction at European level, conducting intense disinformation campaigns on the subject. Their goal: to discredit the nutritional label in traffic light colours and prevent it from becoming mandatory in the European Union. But putting profits ahead of public health is not the way to make policy decisions!

foodwatch unpicks some of the common misconceptions about the Nutri-Score, a nutritional tool that makes junk food manufacturers struggle because it helps consumers make healthier choices more easily.

Our responses to misconceptions about Nutri-Score

Between the cryptic nutritional table present on the back of the packaging, and the colourful nutritional label on the front of the pack, it is quickly seen that the Nutri-Score provides clear and immediately accessible information on the nutritional quality of products.  Some see this colourful depiction and choice of a letter A to E as simplistic, however behind the label is a scientifically established algorithm which translates the nutritional table into something easier to understand. Far from being infantilising, it helps consumers to make informed choices, by making it possible to identify at first glance the healthiest option in the same range of foods.

Studies conducted each year by Santé Publique France show that the label is well known and understood by consumers: 90% of French people identify that the Nutri-Score makes it possible to qualify the nutritional quality of products; 89% think it should be mandatory on packaging and half of those interviewed say they have already changed their eating habits thanks to the Nutri-Score.  Simple, not simplistic, the Nutri-Score is a citizen’s tool for better informed and healthier food choices!

The Nutri-Score helps consumers, at first glance, to understand the nutritional composition of a product: the nutritional values of a product have nothing to do with other factors related to food production, such as the presence of additives or pesticides, or the degree of processing of a product. The algorithm that governs the Nutri-Score does not calculate these dimensions, as they are not part of the obligatory nutritional information table: it is therefore normal that it does not take them into account.

The research teams of Professor Serge Hercberg, designer of the Nutri-Score, explain: no research team in the world has managed to integrate all dimensions of health into a single algorithm, for the simple reason that any nutritional label on the packaging of a product must remain simple to read for consumers.

That said, the inventors of the Nutri-Score are constantly looking to improve this tool and have, in the recent revision of how to grade beverages, included negative points for the use of sweeteners in drinks. That means, beverages with sweetener will score one grade lower than before. A good decision: Like this, the compensation of sugar reduction with sweeteners becomes less attractive to food industry.

Let's set the record straight: the role of the Nutri-Score is to take into account the nutritional composition of products, classifying them from the most balanced, with the letter A, in green, to the fattiest, sweetest and most salty, with the letter E and a red colour. If a product, whether regional or not, obtains an orange or red score, it means that it contains a high amount of fat, sugar or salt: the Nutri-Score does not aim to ban any food, simply to indicate that it is to be consumed in moderation.

There is no link between poor Nutri-Score and regional products: the PDO or PGI acronyms guarantee of quality and origin of a product; they have nothing to do with their nutritional composition. According to a study by the UFC-Que Choisir association, two out of three regional products obtain a good Nutri-Score, these include: Auvergne stew, mogettes from Vendée (a type of white bean), rice from Camargue or cassoulet from Castelnaudary. If products such as cheeses and hams (Roquefort cheese, Bleu des Causses or rillettes de Tours) have a Nutri-Score in orange or red, it is because they are rich in saturated fats and salt: this is the case whether traditional, local or not!

What really hides behind this misconception is the powerful agri-food lobby, which defends, above all, their financial interests and plays on the idea of local and high quality products, dear to French (or Italian) gastronomy. Large groups such as Lactalis and Savencia (which are actually far from small, local producers), respectively No. 1 and No. 5 in the world of dairy products, or BEL, hold very large shares in cheese production and refuse to display the Nutri-Score on their products.

Contrary to this common misconception, consumer adherence to the Nutri-Score and its adoption by seven European countries as official nutrition labelling has gradually encouraged manufacturers to improve the recipe of their products to obtain better Nutri-Score, by reducing the amount of sugar, fat and salt in their products, or by increasing their fibre content. In a study, the UFC-Que Choisir association found that the nutritional quality of products and their Nutri-Score have improved considerably where the traffic light label is widely displayed.

Conversely, as there is no mandatory obligation to use Nutri-Score, junk food manufacturers choose not to display their (bad) Nutri-Score on their products, and they have not made the effort to improve their recipes. Concerning those products that are too fatty, too sweet or too salty, there is nothing new to report: another good reason why the Nutri-Score must be made mandatory! foodwatch has been calling for this for years.

There are of course some manufacturers who, to improve the Nutri-Score of their products, have manipulated their ingredients in ways which do not benefit their customers. An example is the substitution of sweeteners for sugar, particularly in beverages. This substitution is not a positive move as we become more aware of the health effects of sweeteners. In order to ensure that manufacturers are not encouraged to replace sugar in their drinks with artificial sweeteners to improve their Nutri-Score, the latest revision on beverages has  introduced negative points for the use of sweeteners which makes its use less attractive to food producers as the products score one grade lower than without additives.
Further, it should be remembered that the Nutri-Score is not intended to provide information on additives and, obviously, cannot fill the gaps in European food law. Protecting consumers from the health risks posed by excess additives requires strict legislation regulating their use and labelling – a measure that foodwatch has also been demanding for many years.

Simply put: no single measure alone would end the current health crisis of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Health specialists, experts from the World Health Organization, the associations of paediatricians and diabetologists are unanimous: action against NCDs which include diet related conditions such as metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes and fatty liver disease, require a comprehensive strategy that includes not only an intelligible nutrition labelling system, but also other measures, such as restrictions on the marketing of junk food to children, taxes on non-alcoholic beverages, including soft drinks, actions to reduce the intake of sugar and alcohol and binding standards for school canteens.

To create an environment conducive to healthy eating on a daily basis, it is necessary to put in place a set of strong complementary measures.  Discussion on whether the Nutri-Score will solve the entire problem alone or not is not a sufficient argument to not introduce the nutritional label. On the contrary, the Nutri-score is an effective measure in the overall fight against preventable diseases.

If a nutritional label is to allow consumers to objectively compare different food products, it must be calculated on the basis of a reference amount that always remains the same (100 grams or 100 millilitres). This is the case for the mandatory nutritional table on the back of product packaging.  Portions, on the other hand, depend on the specific energy needs of individuals (factoring in weight, height, age, sex) and could not be listed in a harmonised manner on packaging. If the Nutri-Score were calculated based on portion sizes, manufacturers could circumvent it by arbitrarily changing the portion size to get a better score. Taking into account a standard amount of product by the Nutri-Score allows a valid comparison of foods.

If the Mediterranean diet is considered particularly healthy and balanced, it is because it involves the consumption of a large amount of fruit, fresh and dried vegetables and whole grains, as well as a moderate consumption of fish and dairy products, with some meat and very little products rich in sugars, fats and salt. In addition, healthy fats, such as olive oil, remain the main source of fat. This is very much in line with the Nutri-Score categorisation system, which favours foods low in fat, sugar and salt, as well as foods rich in fibre, fresh and dried fruits, fresh and dried vegetables.

Several Italian politicians have accused the Nutri-Score of harming the Mediterranean diet as local products, such as prosciutto, parmesan or gorgonzola, are poorly rated. These criticisms are unnecessary: the Nutri-Score simply illustrates the nutritional quality of these products which, in fact, are very rich in fat and salt, which means that they must be consumed in moderation, even as part of a Mediterranean diet.

In short, the story of the Nutri-Score is that of European agribusiness with no shortage of means, which uses fallacious arguments in order to discredit a nutritional labelling because it fears profit losses when consumers can easily assess healthy and unhealthy products in the supermarket. The traffic-light label however remains independent, scientifically developed and widely acclaimed by consumers. Nutri-Score is an important measure to combat the increase in chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in Europe. It is one effective public health tool which has already proven its worth and must now become harmonised and mandatory across the European Union.

Why is Nutri-Score an opportunity for Europe?

To combat non-communicable diseases and help consumers make healthier food choices, Foodwatch is fighting to make Nutri-Score mandatory in Europe. What are the key takeaways?


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