After years of wrangling, the desire for a harmonized and mandatory food label in the EU remains strong on a political level, even if the form it should ultimately take is far from decided. That question about form, however, has proven to be a tricky one as European lawmakers soon have to review rules on how information about what’s in a given food product is presented to consumers.
The debate may seem trivial yet it is, in fact, highly important. The ingredients and nutritional value of food is critically important, as consumers need to be able to make informed decisions based on dietary preferences or in simply trying to eat healthier.
It also has broader implications our society. According to Eurostat, one in two European adults is overweight or obese, and the UN reports that one in three European children is overweight or obese. This epidemic of obesity – often overlooked –is estimated to cost the EU $60bn annually through healthcare costs and lost productivity.
The Nutri-Score problem
Politicians have begun to take this seriously as well. The debate over food labelling has become polarising and passionate, best reflected in the fierce debate surrounding the Nutri-Score system, sponsored by France. For the longest time, it seemed like the European Commission would make Nutri-Score the EU-wide mandatory front-of-package label – against the strong opposition of a host of countries such as Italy, Romania, Spain and Greece among others.
These countries, backed by the latest research, maintain that Nutri-Score is misleading. Its algorithm favours ultra-processed foods over the more natural foods seen in the so-called “Mediterranean diet”. One perplexing example of the French system comes to mind: according to Nutri-Score, a bottle of Coca-Cola is healthier than a bottle of olive oil.
Even more damning, a recent major report by Safe Food Advocacy Europe (Safe) said it had “concerns about the calculation method used by Nutri-Score to convey nutritional information” and that Nutri-Score own efforts to fix its algorithm had not gone far enough.
Given the shortcomings of the system, it should come as no surprise that, in just the last few months, regulators in Italy and Romania ordered that Nutri-Score be removed from food packaging in those countries. The Italian competition authority even deemed the entire system “misleading”.
The controversy surrounding Nutri-Score is significant for the impact it has on consumer food choices and thus on public health. Indeed, the system’s flaws could well be counterproductive for those that need to tightly control their diet, such as diabetics – especially important in the context of Europe’s obesity epidemic.
The debate heats up
It is noteworthy that scientists and researchers have increasingly begun to criticise the label as well. At a recent discussion event organized by the European Parliament, academics and scientists criticized Nutri-Score for oversimplifying nutrition to the point of being unhelpful. The system over-emphasises negative ingredients and places less importance on healthy ingredients. According to Ramon Estruch of the University of Barcelona “Nutri-Score focuses on what is bad about food. The algorithm calculates its grade, giving 40% weight to the negative effects of a food, and only 15% to the positive effects”.
“Nutriscore is simple, and too simple. It makes obvious mistakes,” says MEP Herbert Dorfmann. The system only evaluates 100g portions, rather than full-size servings, and it doesn’t take into account that the health benefits of food rely on the quantity and quality in which it is consumed.
Pietro Paganini, founder of the think tank Competere says Nutriscore “is the past”, and is based on a algorithm that “claims to be perfect and applicable to everyone” while science has begun to move in the direction of personalised diets.
In fact, according to researchers at the discussion event, Nutriscore “does not improve the consumer’s knowledge or nutritional information.” The system “does not provide any assistance in deciding the overall diet composition, nor does it facilitate in any way an appropriate combination of various foods.”
Why it’s becoming increasingly important
The need for a better, more balanced and more informative food labelling system is particularly urgent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to increased obesity and added to a growing public health crisis across Europe that has food at its centre.
And it’s not just obesity. A recent report by the European Federation of the Association of Dietitians (EFAD) found that the pandemic will increase incidences of non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks and stroke over the coming years. Over 33 million people in the EU suffer from diabetes, a figure which is projected to rise to 38 million in 2030.
According to EFAD, “the most effective way” to help people prevent these diseases “is by raising awareness and educating them about the importance of nutritional care.”
The effects of the pandemic on the health of broader society is still being investigated but what is clear is that better systems to help consumers make more informed choices is urgently required.
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