Is the current product labelling system appropriate, does it provide clear and real information about the nutritional value and environmental impact of the products we consume? Is Nutri-Score effective? Massive overweight, premature diet-related deaths and skyrocketing healthcare costs due to diet-caused non-communicable diseases are signals for urgent action.

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Consumer information, key point

The EU government is willing to take action against malnutrition in order to support citizens in their food choices through appropriate food labelling, though strategies like F2F. The information given to consumers is essential, but that is precisely what is not being fulfilled. Many people are not able to comprehend its standards and therefore find it difficult to align the products they buy with their nutritional guidelines, hence the need to find systems to easily understand the nutritional information expressed on food labels.

Nutri-Score: strengths and limitations

Front-of-pack nutrition labelling systems (FoPL) stand out as a solution to help consumers make health-conscious food choices. In fact, the Commissions believes that is seems appropriate to introduce a harmonised mandatory FoPL system at EU-level. One of the most discussed and favored FoPL system is Nutri-Score, which categorizes a product into a five-tiered system according to its net nutritional value, with ‘A’ being a preferable score and ‘E’ being a detrimental score. However, its effectiveness has been largely discussed. Objectors point out that the system does not differentiate between foods with and without additives or the quality of the fat in those foods, which often leads to inaccuracies in classifying whether one food is healthier than another.

OPTA takes Nutri-Score as a labelling reference, even though adds some additional recommendations

In the midst of this ongoing discussion, the Organic Processing and Trade Association Europe members have recently adopted a position on nutrition labelling and communication. OPTA takes Nutri-Score as a labelling reference with regard to a possible mandatory front-of-pack labelling. “Nutri-Score translates the nutritional recommendations into an easy-to-understand graphical representation. This, and the fact that an overall statement is made about the product in question (rather than showing a score per nutrient), is the strength and advantage of the concept compared to other FoP labelling systems. However, the essential precondition is that the dietary guidelines underlining a FoPL concept are evidence-based”, OPTA EU states out on a position paper published in November 2021, but adds some additional recommendations in order to improve that system.

Degree of food processing

A main controversial aspect is that Nutri-Score doesn’t take into account the degree of food processing, which has high effect on diet-related metabolic diseases compared to the mere composition of macronutrients. Ultra-processed foods often have the opposite effect and incentivize unhealthy eating styles: they are often high in sugar and low in fibre and the intensive use of ingredients like flavourings, colours and other additives mask the real properties of the food which is often the only intension of their use.

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Therefore, Nutri-Score is missing the essential, as the degree of processing is at most indirectly taken into account by the system. Furthermore, the system does not apply to fresh products (vegetables, pulses, meat, fish) or products with only one ingredient in their composition. Therefore, OPTA proposes linking Nutri-Score with the Nova-concept. As a logical consequence, the organisation adds, Nutri-Score could and should be applied for unprocessed food and mono-products also.

Compensation and additives

No distinction is made between the various types of sugar and the influence of calories (better said: of the calorie concept) is overestimated. “The amount of calories is far less important than the form in which the calories are consumed. The false belief that a calorie equals a calorie and that a higher calorie intake per se has negative consequences still seems to be at work here”, OPTA’s position paper notes. On saturated fatty acids, they propose the introduction of an additional parameter: the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, in which negative points should increase as the ratio increases. As for salt, the organisation proposes to adapt the algorithm so that the worst score is achieved not only at the highest but also at the lowest salt content (U-shaped dose-response relationship). “The role of salt should rather be seen in connection with the role of ultra-processed foods, which would be sufficiently taken into account if the degree of processing were also taken into account”, OPTA specifies.

Proposals such as nutrition labelling cannot be promising if people do not have the knowledge and experience to understand them

“Negative factors can be compensated by positive factors. However, some of the corresponding factors have only a limited connection with each other. A high-sugar product cannot be improved by compensating with protein, because the one has nothing to do with the other in terms of metabolism”. OPTA proposes to adapt the compensation mechanism so that only factors are compensated by each other which influence each other physiologically and thus in relation to the corresponding diet-related metabolic diseases, which are: carbohydrates/fibres, fructose/fibres, omega-6 fatty acids/omega-3 fatty acids.

Education and prevention

Despite all the science-based information is needed, proposals such as nutrition labelling cannot be promising either if people do not have the knowledge and experience to understand and interpret them. Therefore, Nutri-Score can and must not replace or reduce other activities such as funding for nutritional education and high-quality food in schools, universities, hospitals and other public institutions. OPTA calls for action: “education and prevention, along with reformulation of products and – above all – some corrections of dietary guidelines, remain important pillars in the struggle against diet-related diseases”.

Consider becoming a member of OPTA, the Organic Processing and Trade Association.

OPTA

Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist

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