Nestlé’s new alternative ‘milk’ product, made from yellow peas and branded as Wunda, has ruffled feathers among the Italian food and drinks industry. In particular, policymakers and food producers have taken issue with Wunda’s attainment of a coveted green A score under the Nutri-Score front-of-pack (FOP) labelling system, even for the chocolate-flavoured edition of the artificial dairy product.
Unsurprisingly, Nestlé has made the top Nutri-score grade a prominent facet of their Wunda marketing campaign—and even attempted to parlay the positive score into a meeting with Italian agricultural minister Stefano Patuanelli. Patuanelli was unimpressed, however, at the fact that a lab-created, artificially-flavoured product was praised for its nutritional qualities, and suggested that Wunda’s green A dispelled any doubts about the utility of the Nutri-score system.
The controversy is just the latest incident in a string of accusations levelled at Nutri-Score, a French-developed labelling scheme, for misleading consumers and unfairly praising certain foodstuffs while neglecting others. Italy has been particularly vocal in its criticism of the system, claiming that it discriminates against several national products which form the basis of the famously healthy Mediterranean diet, though Nutri-Score has detractors from across Europe. In any case, the entire debate is just one more example of how consumers have often been hoodwinked into thinking that highly artificial products are healthy without taking into consideration their role in a balanced diet.
The Wunda scandal isn’t the first time Nutri-Score’s methods have been brought into question. By adopting a one-size-fits-all to nutritional analysis and assigning blanket scores based upon its opaque algorithm, Nutri-Score has been charged with presenting customers with illogical recommendations that are unlikely to help them make healthier choices.
The Nutri-Score system’s myriad critics argue that the scheme is misleading and excludes single-ingredient products which make up the bedrock of many traditional diets around Europe, instead favouring reformulated junk food. Examples include improbably high grades for a plant-based mince alternative from Boni, which offsets its high protein and fiber content with concerningly high concentrations of sodium, and Nestlé’s Nesquik Alphabet cereal, which ranks just as highly as organic muesli despite having a fraction of the genuine nutritional value.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its gastronomic heritage, Italy has been one of the most vociferous opponents of Nutri-Score. Italian policymakers and agricultural producers have alleged that the scheme is an attack on the Italian staples which constitute the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, such as hard cheese, olive oil and cured meats. The country’s Minister of Agriculture has called Nutri-Score a “Trojan horse” for synthetic foods like Nestlé’s Wunda.
Italy has even devised an alternative labelling system, the Nutrinform Battery, which it argues gives consumers a much more holistic and accurate picture of their food’s nutritional value. Instead of reducing foods to a single letter grade, Nutrinform situates the amount of five key components of a product’s nutritional profile—calories, fats, saturated fats, sugar and salt—within the recommended daily values for a balanced diet.
The brouhaha over Nutri-score’s alleged failings, in fact, is simply reflective of a broader trend: time after time, customers are being left confused about the marketed healthiness of a product on the basis of a single characteristic.
For example, around a decade ago, diet drinks became a fashionable means of cutting calories and sugar content, despite the fact that available scientific evidence does not support the idea that they comprise part of a healthy diet – especially when consumed in excess. Indeed, one study by French researchers found that diet drinks could be just as bad as (if not worse than) their sugary counterparts when it comes to heart disease, with regular drinkers up to a third more likely to develop cardiac complications than those who abstained from either. Another piece of research concluded that daily consumption of artificial sweeteners led to a 67% increased likelihood of contracting Type 2 diabetes.
Elsewhere, foods which claim to be low-fat and low-calorie are almost ubiquitous among supermarket aisles these days, but it’s dubious as to whether they actually offer any tangible benefits over those they purport to improve upon. That’s because the absence of fat is often counterbalanced by an excess of refined carbohydrates and sugars, which studies have proven to be just as detrimental to healthy living as a diet high in fat. Trans-fats have come in for particular criticism for their damaging impact on coronary fitness and cholesterol levels. Viewed in this light, it’s not difficult to figure out why Nestlé performed an about turn on its stance regarding Nutri-Score, abandoning its initial hostility to embrace the scheme whole-heartedly once the company realized how the algorithm could be manipulated to market products in a positive light.
Healthy eating requires a holistic approach
A cursory glance at obesity rates in Europe – over half the adult population are deemed to be overweight or obese, and a worrying lack of adherence to traditional diets has spurred on rising rates of obesity among Mediterranean children– is enough to confirm that people on the continent must make healthier and more sustainable eating choices. Indeed, the same trend is reflected around the world, but making progress requires adopting a more holistic overview of how individual nutrients and the foods that contain them fit into a balanced diet.
It’s here where Nutri-Score and some other FOP labelling systems fall down. Through their overly simplistic and reductive attitude to nutritional content, these schemes inadvertently promote artificially flavoured, lab-created foodstuffs over the single-ingredient heritage products that have formed the bedrock of healthy diets for centuries. It might sound retrogressive in an increasingly data-driven world, but going back to basics with regard to our food choices and taking the time to understand the nuances of nutrition could be all-important in turning the tide of problematic eating habits in Europe and beyond.