Nutriscore: after Italy and Spain, France starts to doubt

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What Europeans eat cannot be left to an opaque and misleading algorithm. During a question time at the French Senate, French Minister for agriculture J. Denormandie confirmed his hesitations on Nutriscore, pointing out that its algorithm should be changed to be more inclusive of the nutritional complexity of food, and readapt the portion-base volume. He also added that France will not make this tool mandatory unless it is decided so at the European level, and shared the doubts on this tool already expressed by Italy and Spain, two Member States that share the same values as far as food culture is concerned. 

Farm Europe cannot agree more with the words of the French Minister. In fact, after thorough consultations with the scientific community, it seems clear that, in its current form, the Nutriscore Front-of-pack-label cannot be considered a finished public health tool. The algorithm on which it is based, favours more processed foods and does not consider the dietary balance. These are two key public health issues! It would be irresponsible to conduct a continent-wide experiment with labelling that would lead consumers to make risky choices for their health. 

Therefore, Farm Europe suggests the establishment of a decision grid to move towards effective and useful nutrition labelling for public health. This could be based on the following cumulative criteria:

  • It is truly European: only European solutions can face the challenge of malnutrition and address the silent epidemic of Non-Communicable-Diseases. That means that the design of the label should be common. At the same time, the evaluation system should be flexible enough to consider national sensibilities in the approach to food (as such, already-existing National Dietary Guidelines should be used as a base on which such tool can be built).   
  • It informs, does not judge: Nutrition labelling should guide consumers in their choice, not do it for them. It should better inform, not misinform. At this stage, the Nutriscore takes already the decision for the consumer, by implicitly sending the message for some food to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Wary and well-informed consumers should be in a position to evaluate by themselves which food best suits their diet.
  • It does not use reductionist approaches: Nutriscore extremely simplifies the information, leading consumers not to further delve into the food composition (list of ingredients, calories, sugars, salt etc.). The aim of package labelling should be to lead the consumer’s attention to the back of the package, where more complete information on the product that they are about to buy can be found. Reductionists approaches create a barrier between the front and the back of the package and should, therefore, be avoided. 
  • Portions are plausible: the quantity evaluated should represent likely portions of food consumed to have a closer-to-reality approach and keep the principle that balanced diets is key or a healthy one. The rationale should be based on consumed quantity, not on a general ‘100 gr’ measure that very rarely represents the actual quantity consumed, and push product optimisation towards industrial chemicals palliative. 
  • It considers the processing of food: it is paramount for a public health to guide people away from ultra-processed foods, given the scientifically-proven correlation with the level of processing and non-communicable Diseases. An FOP should thus take into account the level of processing for food, favouring the less processed ones and warning about the health risks of a diet high in ultra-processed foods. 
  • EFSA gives its scientific evaluation
  • Education is part of the equation: whatever it would be, labelling would still be a temporary tool, a ‘patch’, unless the key issue on nutritional habits is tackled. Diseases linked to diet are consequences of more holistic unbalances. Public education policies, notably in schools targeting youth, is the true solution of the health crisis of Non-Communicable Diseases in Europe. Schools programmes have to be integrated with courses on nutrition, cooking, diet and lifestyle. Young students should be accompanied in the learning process of what a heathy diet, and, more in general, a healthy lifestyle is, and see it applied in the canteens.