Nutri-Score Gains Traction Despite Opposition From Italian Farmers

The Italian farmers' group Coldiretti opposes the controversial French food labeling system, saying it underrates the health benefits of olive oil.
Photo courtesy of The RedBurn.
Jul. 7, 2020
Paolo DeAndreis

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As the French food rat­ing sys­tem Nutri-score becomes increas­ingly ubiq­ui­tous in Europe, Italian farm­ers and olive oil pro­duc­ers con­tinue to oppose its imple­men­ta­tion.

The sys­tem, which was devel­oped in 2017 and has since been adopted in seven other European coun­tries, gives food items a grade from A to E, based on their nutri­ent pro­files.

The pub­lic health rec­om­men­da­tions do not sug­gest con­sum­ing olive oil with­out lim­its, but they encour­age con­sumers to favor it over other veg­etable oils and espe­cially over ani­mal fats.- Serge Hercberg, co-devel­oper, Nutri-score

The goal is to enable con­sumers to com­pare the nutri­tional qual­ity of foods,” Serge Hercberg, a pro­fes­sor of nutri­tion at the University of Paris and head of the team that devised Nutri-score, told Olive Oil Times.

Nutri-score uses the com­pu­ta­tion of a nutri­ent pro­fil­ing sys­tem tak­ing into account nutri­ent con­tent per 100 grams for food and bev­er­ages,” he added. It allo­cates bad points accord­ing to the con­tent of crit­i­cal con­cern, unfa­vor­able nutri­ents: sugar, sat­u­rated fatty acids and sodium. Good points are allo­cated for the con­tent of fruits, veg­eta­bles and nuts, fibers, pro­teins and olive, rape­seed and nuts oils.”

See Also: Germany Introduces Nutri-Score

Nutri-score grades extra vir­gin olive oil with a C, which has drawn crit­i­cism from Coldiretti, the major Italian agri­cul­tural asso­ci­a­tion. However, Hercberg said the rat­ing should not come as a sur­prise.

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“[The C for olive oil is] the best score pos­si­ble for added fats and even for veg­etable oils,” he said. The pub­lic health rec­om­men­da­tions do not sug­gest con­sum­ing olive oil with­out lim­its, but they encour­age con­sumers to favor it over other veg­etable oils and espe­cially over ani­mal fats.”

As more coun­tries opt to imple­ment the Nutri-score scheme, pri­vate com­pa­nies have fol­lowed suit.

Food giant Nestlé has said they will adopt Nutri-score on their food pack­ages through­out south­ern Europe.

With Spain and Portugal, we will now have 7,500 Nestlé prod­ucts fea­tur­ing Nutri-score across the con­ti­nent,” Marco Settembri, Nestlé CEO for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, said. Further stud­ies have con­firmed what we believe: Nutri-score works with con­sumers in Europe and has the poten­tial to become the European Union-wide sys­tem.”

Coldiretti responded that Nestlé’s deci­sion to fur­ther imple­ment Nutri-score on its prod­ucts is untimely and wrong.”

[Nutri-score] is mis­lead­ing, dis­crim­i­na­tory and incom­plete. Its para­dox is to penal­ize healthy and nat­ural food while favor­ing arti­fi­cial prod­ucts whose true con­tents are in some cases unknown.- Ettore Prandini, Coldiretti

Ettore Prandini, the asso­ci­a­tion’s pres­i­dent, said the deci­sion seeks to affect the ongo­ing debate in the E.U.” about the even­tual intro­duc­tion of a com­mon food label­ing sys­tem designed to com­bat obe­sity and pro­mote bet­ter eat­ing habits.

“[Nutri-score] is mis­lead­ing, dis­crim­i­na­tory and incom­plete,” he said. Its para­dox is to penal­ize healthy and nat­ural food while favor­ing arti­fi­cial prod­ucts whose true con­tents are in some cases unknown.”

We risk the pro­mo­tion of junk food with sweet­en­ers instead of sugar in it, while block­ing life-sav­ing food such as the extra vir­gin olive oil, con­sid­ered the sig­na­ture prod­uct of the Mediterranean diet,” he added. Nutritional bal­ance is a result of dif­fer­en­ti­ated daily food intake, cer­tainly not of a spe­cific prod­uct by itself.”

However, Hercberg has heard these argu­ments before and said spe­cial inter­est groups would oppose any type of sys­tem aimed at grad­ing foods based on their nutri­tional con­tent.

Six years ago, when… I pro­posed the idea of a sum­ma­rized, graded five-col­ors front-of-pack label to inform con­sumers about the nutri­tional qual­ity of foods, we had an imme­di­ate gen­eral out­cry from eco­nomic oper­a­tors,” he said. Almost every­thing was done by pow­er­ful lob­bies to pre­vent the imple­men­ta­tion of this pub­lic health mea­sure.”

Hercberg said that Nutri-score is based on a solid foun­da­tion of sci­en­tific research.

More than 40 stud­ies pub­lished in inter­na­tional peer-reviewed jour­nals have val­i­dated the algo­rithm under­ly­ing its com­pu­ta­tion,” he said.

The Parisian researcher added that the sys­tem is meant as a com­par­i­son of foods that are in the same cat­e­gory (i.e. for extra vir­gin olive oil and but­ter). He argued it would help con­sumers com­pare sim­i­lar offer­ings – such as two options from dif­fer­ent brands or two types of foods that are pre­pared in sim­i­lar man­ners – to decide what was best for them.

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Hercberg is not alone in his advo­cacy for the sys­tem either.

Citing the sup­port that Nutri-score has gath­ered within the World Health Organization since its intro­duc­tion, the Spanish Authority on Food Safety and Nutrition said it will adopt Nutri-score as part of a mul­ti­fac­eted strat­egy to help con­sumers adopt health­ier eat­ing habits.

France also has adopted the sys­tem with enthu­si­asm and may incor­po­rate aspects of it into tax law. A few weeks ago, the Senate advanced a leg­isla­tive pro­posal that, if adopted, would require prod­ucts labelled D or E to pay a spe­cial tax.

In 2019, German author­i­ties also scrapped plans to leg­is­late their own food label­ing sys­tem in favor of imple­ment­ing Nutri-score.

The E.U. itself has hinted that the debate could soon be over.

During the European Parliament’s last meet­ing of the com­mis­sion on envi­ron­ment, pub­lic health and food safety, Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, a mem­ber of the food safety office of the European Commission, said the E.U. must pro­mote a sus­tain­able food sys­tem.”

He added that this would require the adop­tion of the labelling sys­tem with the goal to make its intro­duc­tion manda­tory for the mem­ber states within the next two years.

While the Commission has not yet offi­cially pro­posed such a con­tro­ver­sial mea­sure, the idea was unsur­pris­ingly met with skep­ti­cism in Italy.

That is absurd,” Prandini told the Italian news­pa­per Il Giornale. The idea is to penal­ize Italy, which along with Japan is one of the coun­tries in the world with the high­est life expectancy, while reward­ing the model of coun­tries where obe­sity is wide­spread.”

Prandini also said the intro­duc­tion of a labelling sys­tem in the United Kingdom meant a loss of at least 30 per­cent for the Italian olive oil mar­ket there.

Lost in favor of oils that are in no way com­pa­ra­ble to extra vir­gin olive oil,” he said. (Rapeseed oil and wal­nut oil are also graded with a C by Nutri-score, while soya, sun­flower and corn oils are all graded as a D, with but­ter receiv­ing an E.)

Italy has asked its European part­ners sup­port­ing Nutri-score at least not to adopt it for prod­ucts with a Protected Designation of Origin, spe­cial­ties that are an essen­tial part of a high-qual­ity and tra­di­tional diet.

The Italian gov­ern­ment is also work­ing to pro­mote an alter­na­tive label­ing sys­tem it has dubbed, Nutrinform Battery, a bat­tery indi­ca­tor” that alerts the con­sumer about the nutri­tional value of the pack­aged food, focus­ing on calo­ries, fats, sugar and salt for sin­gle serv­ing.

Italian gov­ern­ment offi­cials, includ­ing the Minister of Agriculture, Teresa Bellanova, have also empha­sized that any type of label­ing pro­gram must not be uni­lat­er­ally imposed on mem­ber states.

However, Italian pro­duc­ers and gov­ern­ment offi­cials are already swim­ming against a strong cur­rent. Hercbeg said that Nutri-score has proven to be effec­tive and pop­u­lar in coun­tries where it had already been adopted.

We have results of sev­eral stud­ies per­formed in real con­di­tions show­ing that the Nutri-score label led to a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment of the over­all nutri­tional qual­ity of food pur­chases,” Hercberg said.

On the other hand, a study on accep­tance by con­sumers has shown that 91 per­cent of French peo­ple sup­port the Nutri-score logo present on food pack­ages; 91 per­cent con­sider it easy to under­stand; 70 per­cent have a bet­ter image of the brands dis­play­ing Nutri-score and 87 per­cent believe that Nutri-score should be manda­tory,” he added.





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