A new food label, Nutri-Score, is driving transparency and a commitment to health among major food retailers across Europe. This stop-light-like label addresses potential confusion for consumers and provides an easy-to-use way for shoppers to determine the nutrients and health effects of various food products. How would this new label affect you if it came to the United States? And how will food producers react?
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Today, perhaps more than ever before, we all want two important things in our lives: accountability and transparency. Market-research firm Mintel reported this year that consumers are looking for more natural and lesser processed foods rather than those with high fats, high sugar, and high sodium. The key phrase here is “looking for.”
With so little time available for extensive research, we rely on labels — those simple, easily grasped indicators of what we’re getting in the food products offered to us by suppliers who may be more interested in moving product than the useful information we want.
With mass confusion over labeling still widespread, how do we avoid the confusion about how to decipher what these labels really mean?
“About 11 million deaths worldwide in 2017 were attributed to diseases related to unhealthy diets.
Helping consumers make healthier food choices, i.e., with lower intakes of sugars, saturated fats, salt, and energy, and higher intakes of dietary fibres and fruits and vegetables, remains an important challenge in public health.”
Developed in France in 2017, the Nutri-Score label was established based on a modified version of the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency nutrient profile model (FSA-NPS). The UK model has been heavily studied, as it spotlights health outcomes at the national level in cohorts of France and Spain. These studies have revealed that foods with lower FSN-NPS scores were shown to have more favorable health outcomes with respect to many ailments, including asthma, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
While the label is currently voluntary, many national health authorities have adopted it, including France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and most recently, Luxembourg.
The Nutri-Score label was designed to summarize the overall nutritional quality of a product. The algorithm (which we will dive into later) considers both the negative and positive elements of any given food to determine its “traffic light-like” rating. (Green is good, red is bad, yellow is in between.)
In developing and implementing this label, French nutritionists also considered the consumer’s ease of use and understanding. Many labels currently exist.
However, as the latest research published in September of 2020 by Food Control details, 82% of consumers smell the food or look at the food, not the label, to influence their purchase decisions. This is due to label confusion.
But will consumers use it?
The stoplight-type label, as shown below, makes interpreting the label quick and easy—which is ultimately what we all want when we are making our purchase decisions. Who has hours to spend at the grocery store inspecting labels? A study out of Switzerland in 2020, sampling over a thousand consumers, concluded that the Nutri-Score system was the most efficient front-of-package labeling and that consumers exceedingly trust it to make better, more informed dietary decisions.
As this labeling continues to spread in the EU, it begs food manufacturers to stop and think about the products they are creating. The general movement toward better labeling poses some fundamental questions for food manufacturers and consumer product companies.
How can they provide information that reflects the growing demand from consumers for accurate, trustworthy nutritional guidance? How do they help the consumer evaluate complex, incomplete and confusing information? Ultimately, should we place more focus on what’s good for our customers, not just what’s good for our bottom line?
Understanding the algorithm
How can we understand the rating and allow it to drive our decision-making without understanding how it is calculated? If you have a salad for lunch packed with spinach, lean protein, mushrooms, beets, cucumber, and tomatoes, but then proceed to eat an entire sleeve of girl scout cookies, well, you have to take into consideration both the positive (salad) elements and the negative (cookies) elements.
Whether consciously or not, we all seek a balance in life. We try to be smart in our decision-making about what we eat. But we also like to splurge and indulge from time to time.
Smart labels can help us make deliberate decisions that help bring about common-sense balance in our food choices.
Based on a points system, foods are scored by their positive and negative attributes. These points are then aggregated to determine an overall Nutri-Score. The algorithm gives positive points and negative points for various elements of nutrition. In the example below, you can see the categories of negative attributes — energy (or more commonly referred to as calories in the US), sugars, saturated fatty acids, and sodium — versus the positive attributes of fruits, vegetables, fibers, and proteins.
For instance, the veggie bowl being scored below received seven negative points and ten positive points, for an overall score of -3 (think of adding points as adding “bad” elements), giving the veggie bowl an A rating.
The development of the points system is based on a series of scientific research by the French High Council for Public Health. The calculations are rooted in complex-peer reviewed science-based nutritional calculations.
In fact, there is so much trust in this research and labeling systems calculations that retail giants Nestle, PepsiCo, Kellogg, and Danone, to name a few, have adopted it in various locations in the EU. They have recognized that science-based, peer-reviewed nutritional information can have a meaningful role to play in modern food retailing and more importantly, help the consumer make healthy choices.
Retail giants take transparency to a new level
In mid-2019, Nestle announced its support for the Nutri-Score label in recognition of its accuracy and easy-to-understand nutritional information at a glance and its commitment to transparency. Since then, Nestle has implemented this labeling scheme in Spain, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
Nestle CEO for Zone Europe stated that he was proud to extend the implementation of Nutri-Score, now located on over 7,500 products. Since 2017, the sugar in these Nestle products has almost been cut in half, driven in part by the desire to achieve a higher Nutri-Score on their packages and for general health reasons.
While Nestle, in addition to Fleury Michon, Albert Hejin, Carrefour Belgium, and other European retail majors, support the labeling scheme, the European Commission is not yet convinced. Their latest “farm-to-fork” strategy, which details the future of food in Europe, stated that they would propose a “harmonized mandatory front-of-packaging label” by the fourth quarter of this year.
“Along with other public health nutrition measures, the Nutri-Score interpretive nutrition label aims to influence consumers at the point of purchase to choose food products with a better nutritional profile and to incentivize food manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of products, thereby contributing to a healthier food environment.”
Could EU rulings impact U.S.-governed food labels?
Pressure to make healthier products, especially in a post-Covid world, has challenged U.S. food manufacturers to reduce sugars, fat, and sodium. The EU’s Nutri-Score initiative is a great start, but there’s a lot more needed to achieve meaningful results across a global food system. Non-EU nations — including the U.S. — continue to be in an evaluative mode.
History suggests the United States and other countries prefer to build on what others may have done and fine-tune the approach to reflect our own thinking and situation. The success of the EU efforts will help maintain the political (consumer) pressure needed to move that process along.
And in that process, it may help the entire labeling issue to take important next steps, such as applying the same scientific rigor and objective assessment of nutritional issues for popular, often ‘indulgent’ products, such as chocolate, sugary confections, and carbonated soft drinks. That said, it is no surprise that Nutri-Scores are harder to find in these less healthy categories. Check out how your favorite food rates using this link.
Adoption of this system throughout Europe demonstrates manufacturers’ increased commitment to prioritize consumer health by standing behind their formulations. While it is unlikely this decision in their farm-to-fork strategy will translate to the U.S., the key here is that we can see retail giants and industry leaders allowing consumers to lead the way to change. The Nestle’s of the world can be an invaluable force in driving this type of transparency and commitment to consumer health.
The key here is food-industry-led voluntary adoption as a result of demand for better labeling by the consumer. This change will come from widespread and continued consumer pressure.
Skeptics of the Nutri-Score
With the decision by the EU pending a mandatory labeling scheme in their end-of-year farm-to-fork strategy, it is rumored that the Nutri-Score label is a leading contender. But skeptics claim that the label only supports Big Food, stating that it is founded in self-interest by France, neglecting the “artisan” producers. However, rebuttals say that the research behind the score was by independent researchers and was designed to protect consumers’ health, not brands.
Furthermore, all products — including cheese, sweets, salty, and fatty foods — are all scored the same way. The beauty of an algorithm is that it is the same across the board, from the “big food” producers to the small artisan businesses.
Academics weighing in stress that the labeling scheme is protected at a European level, not just by France, and that it is a public health tool based on rigorous scientific research and developed in the interest of consumers.
The Bottom Line
What better way to illustrate a product’s nutrition than with a front-of-package stoplight image. Many retailers in the EU that have adopted the Nutri-Score label show that they are committed to prioritizing the health and wellness of their customers. What is yet to be seen is if this voluntary label will become mandatory and what the skeptics will have to say about that.