Front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labelling scheme Nutri-Score is polarising. The label first entered the market in France, and has since been adopted by Belgium, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg, is lauded by some for ‘favourably influencing consumer food choices’.
Others, including producers of traditional foods Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Roquefort, and olive oil, argue Nutri-Score’s algorithm discriminates foods based on their nutritional composition.
Now, in a dialogue between scientists, MEPs and citizens, opponents to Nutri-Score have raised another concern: they believe France’s support of the FOP is founded in self-interest.
Nutri-Score a 'property of the French State'
The Nutri-Score ranks food from -15 for the ‘healthiest’ product to +40 for those that are ‘less healthy’. On the basis of this score, the product receives a letter with a corresponding colour code: from dark green (A) to dark red (F). The algorithm is based on a standard amount (100g) of product.
The nutrition label has attracted significant attention ever since the European Commission committed to proposing a mandatory FOP labelling scheme by the end of 2022. It is not yet known what format this label will take, but Nutri-Score is rumoured to be a preferred candidate.
The speakers recruited to yesterday’s online event, hosted by think tank Farm Europe and subsidiary Eat Europe, were largely opponents to Nutri-Score.
Amongst the arguments voiced against the labelling scheme was a concern surrounding Nutri-Score’s governance and its alleged benefits to large food manufacturers.
Nutri-Score was developed in 2017 by France’s public health agency, Santé Publique France, which the speakers stressed means it is ‘the property of the French State’.
Spanish MEP Adrian Vazquez Lazara, for example, told delegates he was ‘really concerned’ by the number of Member States adopting the scheme – or as he put it, ‘following this trend’. “And I am also concerned, because this is going to be one of the priorities of the French presidency.”
Lazara continued: “It’s no secret that Nutri-Score is supported by the French Government in order to benefit their big conglomerates in the food sector in France. That’s no secret.
“It is on this basis I hope that the European Commission does not fall into the trap and also considers other [food labelling] options.”
A ‘dictatorship’ of algorithms
Professor Luis Gonzalez Vaque, Director of Food and Agrarian Policies of the Fundació Triptolemos in Spain, is also a Nutri-Score sceptic.
At the Farm Europe & Eat Europe event, the professor raised concerns that Member States adopting Nutri-Score may not have considered how France is implicated in the scheme. “I would like to remind those countries…Germany and others, that Nutri-Score is the property of the French State,” he told delegates.
By creating the labelling scheme, Vaque insinuated that France essentially owns the algorithm.
“My main concern is that I cannot accept something that comes from this dictatorship of algorithms, and let’s be frank, algorithms can be manipulated as well. And they are being manipulated.
“In the future, instead of artificial intelligence, everything will be in the hands of those manipulated algorithms.”
The professor continued: “I don’t know if we should talk about natural intelligence or natural stupidity, or just fraud…I’m not trying to convince anyone. But I’d like to tell you that Nutri-Score cannot be accepted.”
Does the label favour Big Food?
Is the argument that Nutri-Score favours Big Food over artisanal producers founded?
For Belgium-based No-Nutriscore Alliance, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. “The label goes well beyond the aim of a healthy diet, only benefiting the…big chains,” said founder Luciano Stella. “Citizens and EU consumers are not benefiting from Nutri-Score unfortunately.”
The founder pointed to comparisons between honey and Nestlé’s chocolate powder product Nesquik. Honey contains sugar, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, pollen, perfumes and flavours, and achieves a ‘D’ Nutri-Score. Nesquik, on the other hand, contains sugar maltodextrin, hydrolyzed cereals, low-fat cocoa, vitamins C, B1 and D, minerals iron pyrophosphate, zinc and sulphate, vanillin and cinnamon. The chocolate powder achieves an ‘A’ Nutri-Score.
“Ingredients are modified by chemical agents only to have a better Nutri-Score without [properly] informing the consumer about these changes,” he said, “which is quite misleading.”
Stella continued: “What would you prefer, to have bread with honey or with this chemical chocolate?”
Another example highlighted by the No-Nutriscore Alliance compared Parmigiano Reggiano and McDonald’s fries.
Scoring a Nutri-Score ‘D’, the cheese is made from milk, salt and rennet. The fries, on the other hand, score a Nutri-Score ‘B’, and contain potatoes, vegetable oil, natural beef flavouring, dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and salt, we were told.
“On the market, these modified products are jeopardising…traditional agricultural production.”
Through this lens, MEP Lazara perceives Nutri-Score to be nothing more than a ‘marketing tool’.
“It goes against the products from the Mediterranean area, which are already protected with protected indications. It also goes against some products like honey, for example,” he stressed.
“Nutri-Score doesn’t work. Its simplistic algorithm only makes consumers make mistakes.”
Rebuttal: ‘These accusations are totally ridiculous’
Nutri-Score was created by Santé Publique France based on the work of Serge Hercberg, professor of nutrition at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord’s Faculty of Medicine.
While Santé Publique France did not respond to a request for comment ahead of publication, Prof Hercberg told FoodNavigator accusations that France is backing Nutri-Score in self-interest are ‘totally ridiculous’.
“Nutri-Score was developed by independent academic researchers on scientific elements with only one objective: to protect the health of consumers. [It was not developed] to defend any economic interest (not French nor any other).
“Nutri-Score does not support any specific national products. It is based on science and does not take into consideration the origin of products.”
In the professor’s rebuttal, he explained that cheese, processed meat, and sweet/fatty/salted products are ‘classified in the same way’, no matter where they are produced. An analysis of the cheese category, for example, reveals that the highest score for traditional cheese (‘B’) is achieved by ‘famous Italian cheeses’ such as Mozzarella and Ricotta, rather than French cheeses.
“It is the same for processed meat. Saucisson from Lyon, Rillettes from Mans, and foie gras from Périgord are classified exactly the same way as meat from Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
“So the arguments that Nutri-Score is beneficial for French sectors is absurd.”
Prof Hercberg also took issue with accusations that Nutri-Score benefits ‘big conglomerates’ in the food sector, telling this publication that initially, and ‘for many years’, all large food companies were against the labelling scheme.
If some have ‘finally accepted’ Nutri-Score – the professor pointed to Nestlé and Danone – he puts this down to societal pressure, including from scientists, media campaigns, citizen initiatives, and consumer organisations.
“And today, very large food companies… still refuse Nutri-Score and are fighting it strongly!”
Nutri-Score ‘not made in France, but made in Public Health’
And finally, the academic stressed that contrary to suggestions Nutri-Score is owned by France, the labelling scheme is in fact protected at the European level.
“Nutri-Score is not the ‘property’ of the French Government. The brand is protected at the European level, with a precise specification available on the Santé Publique France website to avoid being wrongly used or diverted, but it is open and available to all countries and food companies without any fees.
“Moreover, there is a European steering committee in charge of the development of Nutri-Score associating the government of all countries have adopted Nutri-Score…with a scientific committee made up of independent researchers from these seven countries.”
For the professor, Nutri-Score is a public health tool based on science and only developed in the interest of consumers.
“Nutri-Score is not ‘made in France. It is ‘made in public health’ without any economic or political interest for France or any other country.”