The Issues with Nutri-Score Labeling

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I’m sure many of you have come across the Nutri-Score labeling system on various food products. But what exactly is the Nutri-Score and what benefits does it provide? Despite already having access to the ingredients and nutritional values of products, the question arises as to whether the Nutri-Score is a necessary addition. In evaluating the positives and negatives of this labeling system, we can explore the problems associated with the Nutri-Score title.

So what is Nutri-Score labeling?

Nutri-Score is a nutrition labeling system that was developed in France in 2017 with the aim of helping consumers make healthier food choices. This system uses a scoring system ranging from A to E, with corresponding colors from green to red, to rate the overall nutritional quality of a food product. The score is based on various factors such as the presence of healthy ingredients like fruits, vegetables, legumes, protein, and fiber, and the absence of less healthy components such as sugar, salt, saturated oils, and calories (kcal). The assigned value can range from -15 (A) for the healthiest products to +40 (E) for the least healthy ones.

So far so good, but how is the nutri-score calculated, do all ingredients have the same weight and measure?

One of the issues with the Nutri-Score system is how it calculates the value of products. As I mentioned earlier, this value is based on the presence or absence of certain ingredients, and some of these components are assigned different values based on their “nutritional value.” However, this can lead to some discrepancies when comparing products that have similar Nutri-Scores but are nutritionally very different. For example, a product that contains over 40% mango and another with over 40% cucumber would receive the same value, even though they are vastly different in nutritional value. While cucumber can be consumed daily, mango, while healthy, should not be consumed every day.

Furthermore, the system takes into account other positive factors such as the levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fat, which are important for making healthy choices. However, it also considers the overall calorie content, which can be problematic. For instance, a product high in carbohydrates and protein, such as a protein shake, which is beneficial for individuals engaged in intense physical exercise, may receive a lower Nutri-Score due to its calorie content, despite being a healthy option. This undermines the Nutri-Score system’s accuracy by penalizing products that are otherwise nutritious.

However, the Nutri-Score system doesn’t stop after it has calculated its value for 100gr of product. Once this value is obtained, it is placed into one or more of four categories:

  1. Product Type – The Nutri-Score of a product is calculated within its segment, meaning that the nutritional value of lets say breakfast cereals can only be compared to other breakfast cereals, and so the Nutri-Score of lets say a beverage cannot be compared to that of a milk chocolate.
  2. Cheese Content – If the product contains cheese, then there is a variation in its Nutri-Score.
  3. Added Fats – If a product has added fats in addition to the fat content of its ingredients, there is a variation in its Nutri-Score. For example, while products such as seeds and chocolate already contain fat, adding additional fat such as palm oil would affect the Nutri-Score.
  4. Beverage Category – If a product is a beverage, it is treated differently in the Nutri-Score system.

So we start to see several issues with the nutri-score system, particularly with point 1. While the system can be useful for comparing similar products, such as different brands of potato chips, it is not suitable for comparing products from different segments, such as breakfast cereals with potato chips. An A rating in one segment may not be equivalent to an A rating in another segment, making it difficult to determine which product is truly healthier without analyzing the full ingredients list and nutritional information.

That being said, there are both positives and negatives to the nutri-score system. And I believe I have identified several points worth considering. However, it is important to note that these are just my opinions and knowledge on the subject, and others may have differing views.

Examining the Limitations of the Nutri-Score Labeling System

Potential for Manipulation of Nutri-Score – Although reformulating products to have a higher nutri-score can sometimes result in a better product, there is a possibility for manipulation of ingredients solely to achieve a better score. For example, removing sugar from a breakfast cereal and replacing it with artificial sweeteners can be problematic, as I have previously discussed the issues associated with sweeteners. Additionally, manufacturers may slightly adjust a recipe to achieve a higher score, or launch multiple versions of a product with very low nutri-scores in the same segment to make those with a D score appear to be a better option.

Lack of Evidence on Benefits – Despite its widespread use, there is no research that definitively demonstrates whether Nutri-Score leads to healthier food choices. It is concerning that we are implementing such systems without first testing their true efficacy. It is not enough to simply categorize foods into A/Green, E/Red, and B, C, and D. Also the meaning and impact of these ratings are not always clear to consumers, and it may not be easy for them to differentiate between the different levels of scores or the scores themselfs. This is particularly concerning for those who are not well-versed in nutrition and may not fully understand how the Nutri-Score labeling works.

Alternative Labeling Systems – There are other labeling systems, such as a traffic light system that displays the amount of calories, lipids, saturated fats, sugars, and salt on the front of the package, with color-coded indicators that provide a clearer and more straightforward understanding of what is being purchased. Green means good, yellow means acceptable, and red means not so good. However, this system is not without its flaws. First, many of these systems use recommended serving sizes, which can be manipulated by manufacturers to make their products appear healthier. Furthermore, each manufacturer can determine their own serving size, making it difficult to compare products. Second, consumers must have some understanding of the different nutritional values to make informed decisions. Despite these issues, I find this kind of labeling system to be more useful than the nutri-score. If it were changed to 100g of product, I would consider it closer to the ideal.

Unknown Nutrition Information – I already mentioned above, the Nutri-Score system only allows for the comparison of products within the same segment, however, it also fails to provide a comprehensive understanding of a product’s nutritional value. An “A” score may indicate a high content of protein, vegetables or other favorable nutrients, but this information is not explicitly conveyed. Furthermore, there are products with an “A” Nutri-Score that are nutritionally unbalanced, yet consumers may not be aware of this fact. It is imperative for consumers to be able to make informed decisions about their food choices, and the Nutri-Score system may not always provide this level of clarity.

Its Labeling Only For Industrial Products – Nutri-Score is a labeling system that is exclusively used on industrialized products, and is not applied to unprocessed products such as fruits, vegetables, and meats. This does not necessarily mean that unprocessed products are always healthier, but rather that they do not require a nutritional label. However, the use of Nutri-Score on processed products can sometimes mislead consumers into thinking that these products are as nutritionally valuable as unprocessed products, which is more often not the case.

It Fails to Consider Consumption Habits – The nutri-score is not always an accurate indicator of the nutritional value of a product as it may be biased towards certain diets and quantities of product. For instance, commercial white bread has a higher nutri-score than olive oil, but if olive oil is used in normal moderation, with the typical use and frequency of consumption, a person may consume only 100ml of olive oil per week as opposed to 100 grams of bread per day. Therefore, products such as olive oil, parmesan cheese or ham may have a low nutri-score, but they are actually nutritionally sound as they are naturally ingested in moderation.

It Fails to Consider Serving Sizes – The nutri-score does not account for typical serving sizes. For instance, a box of breakfast cereal with a nutri-score of A may not necessarily be a healthy choice if a person eats regularly two cups of cereal instead of the producers serving size, this in a standard breakfast cereal could be equivalent to 200 grams of product and if you check the labels that tend to have a very high amount of sugar. So this can mislead consumers into thinking that the product is nutritionally good when in reality, the nutri-score is not aligned with the usual nutritional value of the product based on typical and more realistic serving sizes.

It Fails to Consider Complementary Ingredients – Nutri-score does not consider complementary ingredients, which is an important factor in evaluating a product’s nutritional value. For instance, breakfast cereals are often consumed with milk or yogurt, which can significantly affect their nutritional profile. However, Nutri-score only assesses the cereal itself and not its combination with other products. This is also applicable to pre-made meals that require frying, like rissoles, croquettes, or frozen potatoes, whose nutritional value significantly decreases after cooking. Another example is ready-made pancakes or pancake batter that can have a high Nutri-score, but are usually paired with other ingredients such as butter, honey, chocolate, or powdered sugar, which affect their overall nutritional value. Therefore, the Nutri-score system may not provide an accurate representation of a product’s nutritional value when considering its complementary ingredients.

Nuts and Seeds are Classified as Beneficial – It’s worth noting that nuts and seeds are very rich in oils, as a matter of fact many oils are derived from nuts and seeds, which are generally ranked favorably in the nutri-score system. However, it’s important to remember that fat content remains present, both unrefined and in quantity. Therefore, consuming a large amount of products containing nuts and seeds may lead to excessive fat intake, which might not be accurately reflected in the nutri-score. Also i do believe that nuts and seeds are beneficial and nutritionally dense but maybe not in high quantities.

Unclear on Nutritional Value – The legend of the nutri-score can be unclear about the real nutritional value of a product. For instance, products such as potato chips or soft drinks will have little nutritional value regardless of their nutri-score rating. Just because a product has a high score does not necessarily mean it is nutritious. Instead, the nutri-score legend most of the times indicates that within its product category, that product causes less harm compared to others on the same category, instead that this product is more nutritious, as an example lets check Lays chips, this is a C in nutri-score, so its right in the middle, these fried potato chips have as ingredients: 65% potato, oils and salt, that’s right! 25% is just oil, It is not a healthy food in any way, its super high on calories, high on fat, high on saturated fats, also the potato, yes a vegetable is fried, so it has lots a lot of its nutrion in the process, but its nutri-score is a yellow C.

Only Considers Macro Nutrients – The nutri-score only considers macro-nutrients and fails to account for the presence of important vitamins, minerals, and other essential micronutrients in a product. This means that foods that are rich in these micronutrients are not given appropriate recognition in the nutri-score evaluation, both positively and negatively!

It Fails to Consider the Quality of the Product – The nutri-score fails to consider the level of processing of a product. For example, a low-processed candy made with starch, sugar, and some fruits or flavorings could have a lower nutri-score than a fried corn snack with artificial smoked bacon flavoring, which is a much more processed product and less nutritional product. Similarly, an artisan product like parmesan cheese made with the best ingredients and techniques, including ripening, may have an equal or lower nutri-score than a similar product made faster with cheaper ingredients and more destructive processes like cooking or using artificial aging agents.

It Fails to Consider the actual Nutrition – I did mentioned this, but i want to emphasize that the Nutri-Score, while bearing the term “nutrition” in its name, has a limited view of a product’s actual nutritional value. It should not be considered a dietary or nutritional system, nor i could even say a nutritional reference point. Simply relying on the Nutri-Score to make food choices does not guarantee a healthy and balanced diet. The system can be easily misleading, as it only helps to choose products with lower levels of certain nutrients, such as salt or sugar, without providing information on the overall nutritional quality of the product. Therefore, products with a Nutri-Score of B or D do not necessarily indicate whether they are nutritionally rich or poor.

It was Quickly Adopted – Although the nutri-score system was not originally created by large food industry conglomerates such as Nestle, Pepsico, Kellogg’s, etc, these companies have since quickly adopted the system and supported lobbying groups in favor of it. Unfortunately, this fact raises some concerns, as these companies often have other priorities ahead of nutrition. When they band together to spend money to change the packaging of thousands of products, it is unlikely to be solely for the sake of information and improving nutrition. This is not a paranoid assertion, but rather an observation of past actions from these companies.

Examining the Benefits of the Nutri-Score Labeling System

Easy Comparison of Same Segments Products – In the realm of nutrition labeling, Nutri-Score can be useful to discern the overall macro nutritional value of products within a specific segment. Comparing products on the same shelf can be more efficient, providing a quick glimpse into which products may have a better nutritional composition, such as those found on the baby food shelf and therefore choosing the superior product or better yet makes you read the labels of the top products and them make a better informed choice.

Can Help Against Misleading Marketing – The Nutri-Score system can be a useful tool in combating some of the misleading marketing tactics used by certain brands. Rather than being swayed by advertisements promoting a new “light” version with added superfoods, for example, consumers can look to the nutri-score to see if the product actually has a good nutritional composition. Products with a low nutri-score, particularly those marketed as healthy or diet products, should be viewed with suspicion. Additionally, products that feature images of vegetables and healthy foods on the packaging, but still receive a poor nutri-score, may not be as nutritious as they appear.

May Help Point Out Unhealthy Products – In the same sense it’s important to recognize that some products marketed as “healthy” may not be as nutritious as they appear. For instance, natural fruit drinks and juices often receive low nutri-scores (D and E) due to their high sugar content and lack of fiber. While whole fruit is a healthy choice, fruit juices should be viewed more as a sweet treat than a health food. In fact, one liter of orange juice contains the equivalent of about 8 oranges, which is more than most people would consume in one sitting. Therefore, a low nutri-score for fruit juices can actually be a positive indicator of their nutritional value. It’s worth noting that fruit juice companies, like Compal in Portugal, choose not to use the nutri-score system.

May Help Make Better Choices – Although it may be challenging to interpret what an E or D rating means on the Nutri-Score, it is clear that seeing products with a red E or an orange D bars may prompt the consumer to reconsider their purchase and consumption of that product. This is always a positive outcome, particularly for those who are easily distracted or lack a good understanding of nutrition. While there are no conclusive studies demonstrating the impact of the Nutri-Score on consumer behavior, some studies have shown that providing more information and subtitles can create more trust and maybe better choices. However, this is not equivalent to a study proving that people make healthier choices solely because of the presence of the Nutri-Score, because like i said above, there is no such study.

Incentives to Improve Products – The Nutri-Score system, despite the potential for manipulation, has created an incentive for improvement in the nutritional quality of certain industrial products. In fact, the implementation of this system, combined with the extra fees on sugary products, has already resulted in the positive development of some products, ultimately leading to a healthier consumer product market.

It is a Proportional System – Despite several issues, the nutri-score system remains a proportional system, with measures based on 100g/100ml, which is a reasonable standard that i support. It addresses the problematic practice of food producers creating unrealistic portion sizes, such as a serving of milk chocolate being four squares, which contains only 60 calories, while a full bar of 500 calories is more likely to be consumed. Similarly, cereal boxes often overstate the number of servings, which creates unrealistic nutritional expectations for consumers.

And that’s it, I would like to state that my criticism of the nutri-score system should not be misconstrued as an attack against it. In fact, I believe that providing more information to consumers is always a positive thing. However, the current implementation of the nutri-score system suffers in my opinion from poor design and lack of transparency, making it difficult for consumers to interpret the nutritional value of products accurately. For instance, many consumers are unaware that the nutri-score is only comparable within the same product category, or that a product with a nutri-score of A does not necessarily indicate the same level of nutritional value as another product with the same score. As a result, relying on the nutritional values and the ingredient list remains a safer and more informative way to make informed choices about the foods we consume, especially in Europe where these are standardized.

Well I hope this article was helpful, as always if I made any mistakes or you want to discuss, you already know the comments are always available, as Ive said I’m not convinced on the nutri-score labeling, I think we can do much better, but I believe that knowing what it is and how it works will help everyone make better and healthier choices, right on! 🙂 See you next time!

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