Nutri-Score Fast Becoming a Political Liability in France
French presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse recently waded into the nutritional labelling debate when she told Europe 1 last month that the French front-of-product (FOP) nutrition label, otherwise known as Nutri-Score, should grade products based on their portion size, rather than the multicoloured nutritional grading system’s 100-gram, one-size-fits-all approach.
With the French elections fast approaching and candidates vying to secure support among France’s influential agricultural sector, Pécresse is not alone in questioning the way the system attributes its grades. France’s agricultural minister Julien Denormandie made waves in October when he admitted changes to the Nutri-Score methodology are needed, indicating President Emmanuel Macron is also concerned about the system his government ostensibly backs.
The issue is sure to become progressively more contentious in the lead-up to the presidential elections, as a growing number of food producers rise up against the Nutri-Score label. Calls for Nutri-Score reform demonstrate how unpopular the system has become among key constituencies in France – and the controversy around it, much of which has been generated by inventor Serge Hercberg, has spread well beyond France’s borders.
A flawed system?
The idea of putting a Nutri-Score style nutritional label on the front of food packaging was first proposed by Hercberg in 2013, when he joined forces with the French Ministry of Health to improve France’s nutritional policy. His proposal was accepted in 2016, and the Nutri-Score FOP nutrition label was officially adopted in France in October 2017.
The Nutri-Score system rates food based on nutrient content including sodium, sugar, calories, and fats per 100 grams or 100 millilitres. Foods are ranked based on perceptions of healthiness, from the most healthy “Green A” to the least healthy “Red E.” Nutri-Score has become a recognisable brand in France, with 81% of consumers saying they are aware of the system and four in 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 took to Twitter to insist Nutri-Score is a public health tool based on science and that it should not be distorted to defend economic interests, even when it comes to France’s iconic AOP/IGP cheeses.
But a closer inspection of the Nutri-Score system reveals that large corporates and fast-food giants have been some of its biggest beneficiaries, meaning a tool meant to combat obesity might be helping conceal how unhealthy some foods actually are.
Bad grades, but not for burgers
If Nutri-Score’s grading system is proving increasingly problematic and divisive, it is in large part because its uniform approach to diets rates many traditional products poorly and unfairly penalises foods with high fat content. Products from virgin olive oil to Roquefort cheese have fallen afoul of Nutri-Score, which initially labelled them with “D” and “E” grades respectively before upgrading some olive oils to “C.”
Other, potentially more problematic products, by contrast, have fared quite well under Nutri-Score. The McDonald’s McChicken burger, for example, contains 439 calories and 45 grams of carbohydrates, but receives a B grade. The Big Tasty Bacon, with 871 calories and 21 grams of saturated fat, receives a C grade. And according to Dr. Rafael Moreno Rojas at the University of Cordoba, “67% of KFC products, including desserts and side dishes, managed to obtain the three best Nutri-Score scores, and 59% are classified either ‘A’ or ‘B.’”
Part of the problem lies in how Nutri-Score calculates its grades. Its algorithm favours processed foods because their ingredients can be modified, unlike traditional or ‘appellation contrôlée’ products, which are at a disadvantage because their recipes have been set in stone for centuries.
Furthermore, measuring food by the standard 100 grams or 100 millilitres has been widely criticised by figures beyond Pécresse, because portion sizes for many products vary considerably. In the case of olive oil, a portion size would be much smaller than what Nutri-Score measures.
In his response to Pécresse’s calls to measure foods based on serving sizes, Hercberg cited a blog post explaining why the system uses 100 grams instead of serving sizes. 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 healthiness 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 meant to do – characterise and classify foods as healthy or unhealthy. That’s why it uses a grading system and colours indicating bad or good.
French presidential candidates aren’t the only ones concerned, and rivals to the system are cropping up in its native France. myLabel, for example, takes other factors into account when calculating a nutritional score, including the consumer’s age and date of birth, as well as standard portion sizes.
Developed with assistance from the National Institute of Consumer Affairs, as well as experts from the Centre De Recherche pour l’Etude et l’Observation des Conditions de Vie, myLabel brands itself as superior because Nutri-Score “does not take into account the serving of use according to the individual profile.”
A European issue
The Nutri-Score backlash extends well beyond France. Other EU member states, including some that originally supported the system, have since come out against it. Spain, for example, has progressively been shifting its position against the Nutri-Score, after complaints from producers of beloved Spanish products like red-graded Iberian ham.
Late last year, the Italian competition authority launched a probe against Carrefour and other European food companies using the Nutri-Score label for products sold in Italy. According to Politico, “its probe into Nutri-Score already looks like an outright indictment against the scheme, heavily suggesting that it misleads consumers in the way it ranks the nutritional value of a food by assigning it a colour and a letter.”
Italy argues its own food labelling system, Nutrinform, offers a better alternative to Nutri-Score. Unlike the French label, Nutrinform does not penalise products with bad grades. Instead, the system uses battery symbols to indicate each product’s energy, fat, sugar, and salt content, framing consumption in a more holistic framework of optimal daily intake and recognising the benefits of eating fats and proteins in moderation.
When such factors are taken into account, FOP labels no longer find themselves in the position of claiming a Big Tasty Bacon is preferable to an artisanal cheese board. Food for thought for the next French president.
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