Will Nutriscore founder on the slippery issue of Spanish olive oil?

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While European citizens are transfixed by the European policy issues of vaccines and energy transition, they are paying much less attention to the F2F (From Farm to Fork) plan and the matter of FOP (front-of-pack nutrition labelling).

These two acronyms may well seem quite mysterious to the European consumer.  This however is not for want of trying by the EU, which recently launched a consultation on the topic.[1] It is in fact a crucial issue, as the future of our food is at stake. All the more since this has polarized European scientists.

Two camps have now formed around the main systems proposed. A coalition of 7 countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland) have announced the establishment of a transnational coordination mechanism to facilitate the use of the French Nutriscore system; and in the opposing corner, a coalition launched by Italy, including countries such as the Czech Republic, Greece and Romania

But it is not all quite so clear-cut, and there are divisions even within countries. This is particularly notable in Spain, where debate is raging again over the merits of Nutriscore. The Spanish olive oil sector is protesting against the fact that as their product has been rated poorly, it should be removed from the rating system; producers of other traditional products, such as Iberian ham and Manchego cheese, are also calling for exemptions.[2]  These arguments demonstrate the failings of the system that some want to impose on Europe.

European Scientist, which has been following this issue closely, interviewed Dr Rafael Moreno Rojas[3], researcher in nutrition and Professor at the University of Cordoba, and paediatric dietitian Catherine Bourron-Normand[4]. These two experts walked us through the issues at stake in the debate and the positive and negative externalities of the proposed systems.

FOP: a necessary response to consumer expectations?

Consumers may not be aware of the debates taking place at European level on the subject of their food, but in some EU countries that have applied new labelling systems, consumers are now familiar with the Nutriscore-type traffic light labels. As dietician Catherine Bourron-Normand points out, French children are now asking for products labelled with high Nutriscore ratings in order to please their parents,

When I hear parents talking about it, I do feel rather worried: a little girl will look for Nutriscore A labels on biscuit packets to please her father when they go shopping together. The father would then checks the Nutriscore and the Yuka [app]. She’s not looking for the biscuits that she would like, but the ones she thinks will conform to her father’s requirements.

“This kind of attitude is problematic, because it’s not about anything magical any more…. It’s a shame, especially as in spite of all that she is still putting on weight

Food labelling has become part of our daily lives, and as we can see, it is a concern even for the younger generation. It is also, as the nutritionist adds, a response to the “cacophony of food”:

“These days we actually receive an incredible number of suggestions from experts. There is a lot of public concern about how valid these messages are. For a long time, the one goal was to make people lose weight, but now we get questions about the value of the information”.

But it is most necessary now because of the increasing sophistication of the food industry. Indeed, as Dr Moreno Rojas points out, it is a response by the food industry to a double market stimulus: consumer demand and market strategies.

“Over the last few decades the consumer has demanded safe, cheap, easy to store and increasingly sophisticated foods. In order to enable these demands, the food industry has developed a whole range of products in which natural ingredients have been replaced by food additives and food processing technology. More recently, however, critical voices and trends in particular have begun to rail against the high level of processing, the use of additives, and environmental responsibility.”

Against this backdrop has emerged the need for food labelling that can simplify the presentation of an increasingly complex choice of foods. As a result, for the Spanish expert, the approach taken by the EU as part of F2F is “necessary and very interesting”. But he also notes that it is difficult to develop:

“The big problem is that there is currently no front-of-pack labelling system that is useful enough for the consumer, as these systems focus on very specific nutritional aspects, leaving gaps in the benefits and drawbacks of food consumption as regards various other aspects”.

While everyone seems to agree that the FOP concept is necessary, we should bear in mind that it is far from being a cure-all. As Ms Bourron-Normand likes to remind us:

“Obesity is ‘multi-factorial’ and involves epigenetic, psychological and food consumption factors, but also physical activity, and you have to address all the aspects”

Not only is it overly simplistic to reduce the problem to one that can be solved by setting up a food information system, but it’s not even clear that we have an ideal solution waiting in the wings – as shown both by the lack of unanimity on the topic of FOP and the fact that there is no consensus on the criteria that such a system should fit.

In search of ideal criteria 

The issue of deciding on the right criteria to find the right labelling system is key. Attempting to show what this looks like, Professor Moreno Rojas drew a parallel with a labelling system that would evaluate an ideal vacation destination. You could select all the characteristics that would work to evaluate a beach, “but then this would side-line traits specific to cultural, rural, gastronomic, mountain or snow sports tourism, etc.” A good comparison that helps to understand why:

“The same is true for nutrition labelling, which is ultimately based on just a few criteria that, faced with an obesity epidemic and with cardiovascular disease leading the way in mortality, might well seem important, but not single-handedly so.”

The risk, highlighted by the Spanish expert, is that by favouring one type of nutrition labelling :

The actual principle of nutrition, which is maintaining a nutritional balance and variety of foods, is being overlooked, because we may be tempted to eat only the foods with the best values on the display label, creating a monotonous, unbalanced and nutritionally inadequate diet.

According to Dr Moreno Rojas, other parameters make the process complicated and the risk is having an imbalance between the types of food: while traditional products or trademarked products are at a disadvantage because they are not really able to change their recipes, big food corporations will be at an advantage:

They base their production on the ‘formulation” of the product, and can easily adapt the composition to conform to a better classification, without this necessarily implying a nutritional improvement. For example, by replacing the intrinsic sugars provided by their natural ingredients with food additives that provide sweetness (and reduce sugars and calories), after which they need to use flavourings to disguise the absence of the original ingredient, as well as colours, thickeners, stabilisers etc. that are required to make the food look like the original thing”.

It’s therefore exceedingly complex to find our elusive ideal criteria. As Catherine Bourron-Normand puts it bluntly:

“Nutrition is too complex to be left to an algorithm”. 

And that brings us to the issue of Nutriscore.

Questioning the scientific nature and philosophy of the Nutriscore

While some would have us believe that Nutriscore is the be-all and end-all for FOPs, there are probably few things more controversial than this algorithm. Professor Moreno Rojas is leading a fierce battle against it on his blog.[5] He told us some of his harshest criticisms: “Too many foods are misclassified”, “its calculations based on 100g of products do not take into account the recommended levels of food consumption since 1992”, “an obsolete algorithm”…but this is nothing compared to his ultimate judgement, which he believes shows the non-scientific nature of the algorithm:

“Nutriscore does not take into account the latest findings in human health protection. It faithfully reflects the dietary recommendations of the American Heart Association, which the PREDIMED study showed to be less effective than the Mediterranean diet with additional virgin olive oil. This has been graded as a C by the NutriScore, after grudgingly removing it from the D category, along with other fats whose health effects are much less scientifically clear”.

In addition to the criticism of the lack of scientific credibility of Nutriscore, there is also the psychological impact that a system like this is thought to have on the population. When asked why some people see the Nutriscore as an infantilising system,[6]paediatrician Catherine Bouron-Normand replied:

“It’s not only an infantilising system, it’s also guilt-inducing. But these days we come up against a great many eating disorders. Eating is becoming a real issue and in families it is becoming more and more complicated. There is a whole philosophy of food with debates swirling around it: its not good for the planet, it’s not good for your health. The Nutriscore will only add to this”.

Mediterranean diet vs. one size fits all

Looking at the nations mentioned in the introduction, one could roughly say that a North-South divide has formed over Nutriscore. It is therefore questionable whether it makes sense to impose the same labelling system on all European countries, since it would appear that the system does not take into account the qualities of the Mediterranean diet. At any rate, this is what Professor Moreno Rojas is critical of:

“The results of various studies, the most important of which is PREDIMED, show that the Mediterranean diet, or to be more precise, the Mediterranean lifestyle (led by its diet), is the healthiest and gives the best chance of greater longevity, associated with a better quality of life (due to a lower incidence of the most common non-communicable diseases)”

It is well known that this diet is very much based on fatty foods. Now, the weak point of Nutriscore for a growing number of experts and nutritionists is that it performs well for types of diets other than the Mediterranean diet (such as measuring diets rich in protein, calcium, etc.).

Many Spanish politicians agree, including the Popular Party, which has issued a statement[7] calling on the Spanish government to postpone the implementation of the Nutriscore system in Spain and to push for nutritional labelling that “highlights the high nutritional quality and healthiness of Spanish food products”. According to some Spanish producers, the Italian Nutrinform Battery label could perform this role;[8] a solution that Moreno Rojas supports :

“Nutrinform seems to be more appropriate for the Mediterranean diet, although it would require further study”.

But the Spanish professor adds that it would be even better to think about other tailor-made solutions:

“I think that in a short time we could develop something much more useful than a simple front label, which would be adaptable to the needs of each consumer – via systems linking it to more complete information on the food, using the bar code that all packaged foods carry to directly identify it to a mobile application, or better still, using specific systems such as a QR code, which would allow the consumer to access much more complete and personalised information”.

But beyond all the labelling systems, it is always good to remember, as Catherine Bourron-Normand says, that “we need to put common sense back into the equation and not just algorithms”… A call that should unite all stakeholders on this issue, starting with the most important ones: European consumers.

Olive oil excluded from Nutriscore: an affair of state.

The fact that Nutriscore classified olive oil as D, and then C, may seem insignificant to non-specialists. But it has become a political scandal that may very well see its promoters bested by the uproar over these healthy fats. The matter went up to the highest levels of the Spanish state, so much so that it was Minister Alberto Garzon who eventually announced the exclusion of olive oil from the Nutriscore. Commenting on this news, Dr Raphael Moreno Rojas is blunt: 

“What would you think if a system designed to rank the best football players placed Lionel Messi in category C? This is absurd”.

“Virgin olive oil is supported by hundreds of scientific publications and an EFSA nutritional claim for promoting health, and not even just cardiovascular health.

“Virgin olive oil consumption is generally set at around 20g per day, so equating its consumption with foods that are consumed by the hundreds of grams per day produces confusion when counting the effect on total calories consumed daily.”

(Responding to the question of the exclusion of olive oil from the Nutriscore) : 

“A consumer who prioritises higher graded foods (As and Bs), logically will not select ungraded foods. On the other hand, this exclusion would only concern Spain, which would be detrimental to the C category on the international market, where this product is gaining more and more market share."

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/12749-Revision-of-food-information-to-consumers-

[2] https://www.lanzadigital.com/economia/campo/los-sectores-del-jamon-iberico-el-queso-manchego-y-el-aceite-de-oliva-se-defienden-ante-la-mala-nota-de-nutri-score/

[3] Dr Moreno Rojas studies the diet of healthy populations and analyses nutritional or toxicological risks from food consumption. In 2016 he led research analysing all the food quality classification systems that existed at that time in the scientific literature, coming to the conclusion that none of them was adequate.

[4] Catherine Bourron Normand qualified as a dietician in 1982, and then specialised in paediatrics. She spent much of her career at the Trousseau Hospital before going into private practice. Paediatric dietetics is a niche area. She has also collaborated on a recipe book for food allergies in children.

[5] https://rafaelMoreno.es

[6] https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2014/06/13/etiquetage-alimentaire-les-bonnes-intentions-ne-font-pas-de-bonnes-politiques_4437595_3232.html

[7] http://www.gppopular.es/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2021.03.03-Nota-GPP-PNL-etiquetado.pdf

[8] https://www.oliveoiltimes.com/business/nutri-score-supporters-organize/90631

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