In a May 6th press release, the Italian government openly criticized an upcoming report of the World Health Organization (WHO) intended to provide guiding principles and a framework for front-of-pack nutrition labeling in order to promote a healthy diet. These new custom nutrition labels would help better inform consumers.
In many countries, discussions are underway concerning a front-of-pack (FOP) label that provides real transparency on the nutritional quality of foods and would thus help guide consumers toward healthier choices. Such labels are strongly supported by public-health authorities and also consumer associations around the world.
A label adopted after a long political process
It’s worthwhile looking back on the political process that led up to the adoption of NutriScore system, developed in our research team in Paris 13 University. Based on a report delivered in 2014, the previous French minister of health, Marisol Touraine, chose the principle of a voluntary front-of-pack nutrition label. The proposal, based on EU regulations, was approved in December 2015 and the decree published in July 2016 with, at that point, no specific choice for the label’s graphical format.
The announcement of the selection of the NutriScore in March 2017 was based on a series of scientific studies, in particular the results of a large-scale trial conducted in 60 supermarkets at the request of manufacturers and retailers. It compared several label formats, and the one selected, the NutriScore, was confirmed by France’s current health minister, Agnès Buzyn, and co-signed by the ministers of Agriculture and the Economy.
The NutriScore has five colors with the goal of informing consumers on foods’ nutritional qualities and thus allowing them to compare between food. The selection of this label was based on numerous studies published in international peer-reviewed journals. This approach that led the EU office of the World Health Organisation to commend “France’s robust use of evidence to inform this decision”.
An evidence-based label
Studies conducted during the consultation process as well as independent research from teams at Inserm, INRA and other universities in France all have shown the superiority of NutriScore compared to other formats. Research looked at consumer perception, objective understanding and the labels’ impact on the nutritional quality of purchases in a range of experimental and real-life designs. The results of these studies are consistent, and show a greater efficiency of the NutriScore, both for the general population and for disadvantaged subgroups of the population or subjects suffering from chronic conditions like diabetes.
Despite the evidence, and in disregard of the positions of consumer associations who are asking for the NutriScore to be implemented, several agro-industrial lobbying groups have opposed the label. They resort to a simple strategy, shown to be successful in other sectors, such as tobacco: Unable to stop a political decision, they conjure up an alternative system – one potentially less damaging to their economic interests – by justifying its supposed advantages for the consumer.
Ten pieces of data to help choose between a yogurt and a fruit purée
Various studies compared this label with the NutriScore and it was shown to be less efficient.
Indeed, the NutriScore provides only one indicator of color for the overall nutritional quality of the food: the foods having the highest nutritional quality are labelled in green. The alternative label provides information for each nutrient – a food could be labelled in green for sugars, but other colors for salt or fats. This type of label can be more difficult to understand for consumers. To choose between two products – for example, a yogurt and a fruit purée – the consumer needs to quickly compare ten different pieces of information, instead of just two with the NutriScore.
But many industrial lobbies consider that such labeling would be contrary to their economic interests and are thus are opposed to the measure.
Food & Nutrition labeling: scientific or a “political concept”?
In his official statement, Gian Lorenzo Cornado, permanent representative of Italy at the World Health Organization (WHO), asserted that “nutrient profiles intended to classify foods is a political concept without any scientific base”.