The Nutri-Score quickly becomes a political liability in France


French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse recently got into the nutrition labeling debate when she said to Europe 1 last month that the French front-of-product (FOP) nutrition label, also known as Nutri-Score, should rank products based on their serving size, rather than the multicolored 100 nutrition ranking system grams, one size approach.

With French elections fast approaching and candidates vying for support from France’s influential agricultural sector, Pécresse is not alone in questioning the way the system assigns its ratings. French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie made waves in October when he admitted changes to the Nutri-Score methodology were needed, indicating that President Emmanuel Macron is also concerned about the system his government ostensibly supports.

The issue is sure to become progressively more controversial as the presidential elections approach, as a growing number of food producers speak out against the Nutri-Score label. Calls for Nutri-Score reform demonstrate how unpopular the system has become among major constituencies in France – and the controversy surrounding it, much of it generated by inventor Serge Hercberg, has grown. spread well beyond the French borders.

The idea of ​​putting a Nutri-Score-like nutrition label on the front of food packaging was first proposed by Hercberg in 2013, when he partnered with the French Ministry of Health to improve French nutrition policy. . His proposal was accepted in 2016 and the Nutri-Score FOP nutritional label was officially adopted in France in October 2017.

The Nutri-Score system rates foods based on their nutrient content, including sodium, sugar, calories, and fat per 100 grams or 100 milliliters. Foods are ranked according to perceptions of healthiness, from the healthiest “Green A” to the least healthy “Red E”. Nutri-Score has become a recognizable brand in France, with 81% of consumers saying they know about the system and 4 out of 10 having bought a product with the label. Other countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, have since endorsed it.

After Pécresse called for changes to the system, Hercberg caught on Twitter to insist on the fact that the Nutri-Score is a public health tool based on science and that it must not be distorted to defend economic interests, even when it comes to the emblematic PDO/PGI cheeses of France.

But closer inspection of the Nutri-Score system reveals that big business and fast-food giants have been among its biggest beneficiaries, meaning a tool aimed at tackling obesity could help disguise just how much. some foods are unhealthy.

If the Nutri-Score scoring system is proving increasingly problematic and divisive, it’s largely because its one-size-fits-all approach to diets incorrectly and unfairly rates many traditional products penalizing foods high in fat. Products ranging from virgin olive oil to Roquefort cheese have come into conflict with Nutri-Score, which initially labeled them with “D” and “E” grades respectively before upgrading some olive oils to “C”.

Other potentially more problematic products, on the other hand, performed quite well under Nutri-Score. The McDonald’s McChicken burger, for example, has 439 calories and 45 grams of carbs, but receives a B rating. The Big Tasty Bacon, with 871 calories and 21 grams of saturated fat, receives a C rating. And according to Dr. Rafael Moreno Rojas from the University of Cordoba, “67% of KFC products, including desserts and side dishes, managed to achieve the top three Nutri-Score scores, and 59% are classified as ‘A’ or ‘B’. .’”

Part of the problem is how Nutri-Score calculates its ratings. Its algorithm favors processed foods because their ingredients can be modified, unlike traditional foods or ‘controlled appellation’ disadvantaged because their recipes have been set in stone for centuries.

Additionally, measuring food by the standard 100 grams or 100 milliliters has been widely criticized by numbers beyond Pécresse, as the serving sizes of many products vary widely. In the case of olive oil, a serving would be much smaller than what the Nutri-Score measures.

In his response to Pécresse’s calls to measure food by portions, Hercberg cited a blog post explaining why the system uses 100 grams instead of portions. According to the blog: “The Nutri-Score is absolutely not intended to characterize and classify foods as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ in absolute terms. No nutritional logo can do this since the safety of a food depends on the quantity consumed and the frequency of its consumption, but also on its place in an overall dietary balance of individuals.

Except that’s exactly what Nutri-Score is supposed to do – characterize and classify foods as healthy or unhealthy. That’s why it uses a rating system and colors indicating bad or good.

The candidates for the French presidential election are not the only ones concerned, and the rivals of the system arise in his native France. myLabel, for example, takes other factors into account when calculating a nutrition score, including the consumer’s age and date of birth, as well as standard portion sizes.

Developed with the help of the National Consumer Institute, as well as experts from the Research Center for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions, myLabel is positioned as superior because Nutri-Score “does not take into account the service of use according to the individual profile.”

The impact of Nutri-Score extends far beyond France. Other EU member states, including some that originally supported the system, have since spoken out against it. Spain, for example, has gradually changed its stance against Nutri-Score, after complaints from producers of beloved Spanish products like red-rated Iberian ham.

Late last year, the Italian competition authority launched an investigation against Carrefour and other European food companies using the Nutri-Score label for products sold in Italy. According to Politico, “its Nutri-Score investigation already looks like an outright indictment of the program, strongly suggesting that it misleads consumers in how it ranks a food’s nutritional value into itself. assigning a color and a letter”.

Italy says its own food labeling system, Nutrinform, offers a better alternative to Nutri-Score. Unlike the French label, Nutrinform does not penalize products with bad ratings. Instead, the system uses battery symbols to indicate the energy, fat, sugar and salt content of each product, framing consumption within a more holistic framework of optimal daily intake and recognizing the benefits of eat fats and proteins in moderation.

When such factors are taken into account, FOP labels no longer find themselves in the position of claiming that a Big Tasty Bacon is better than an artisan cheese platter. Food for thought for the next French president.

Photo credit: Pixabay/Pexels


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