Europe must not turn its back on the Mediterranean diet

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Last year, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of UNESCO’s designation of this Mediterranean diet as a “Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

Then, why is the European Commission undermining the exceptional Mediterranean products that belong to our diet, thus putting at risk hundreds of thousands of jobs and an entire industry hit hard by Covid-19?

  • Is a can of Coca-Cola Zero really ‘healthier’? (Photo: Renew Europe)

And, more importantly, what can be done to change course?

The issue on the table is the decision by the European Commission to move ahead with the harmonised and mandatory European Front-of-Pack-Labelling (FOPL) scheme as part of the Farm to Fork strategy.

Considering that several EU countries are implementing (or have already done so) the Nutri-Score system, it seems highly likely that the European Commission will work on this basis.

Let us begin by explaining what the Nutri-Score system is.

It is a label on food packaging which classifies foods by calculating a nutritional score based on a five-colour scale – where ‘A’, or green, represents the healthiest option, and ‘E’, or red, the less healthy one – giving the food a generally positive or negative nutritional profile.

This front-of-pack nutrition-labelling scale is calculated by using an algorithm developed by a team of researchers.

As responsible consumers, we want simple and clear labelling rules that help us understand the nutritional components of the products we buy, so that we can easily compare them with others and make informed decisions.

Having an harmonised scheme in Europe will also avoid product discriminations, thus making our single market stronger.

So far, so good.

The issue arises when the output of the algorithm underlying the Nutri-score system for a given product results in a label that clearly misleads consumers and guides them towards lower-quality products. In such circumstances, we would expect the authorities and the experts behind the algorithm to understand what went wrong, and to fix it.

Faulty algorithm

This is the situation we are in. The algorithm underlying the Nutriscore scheme misleads consumers by, for example, signalling that a can of Coca-Cola Zero is healthier than a bottle of olive oil.

And this is just an example, because what the Nutriscore scheme systematically does is to undermine natural products that are symbols of the Mediterranean diet, most of which already have a ¨EU quality seal¨, and over-promote industrial products that are less healthy for our children and consumers.

The scheme also punishes uni-ingredients, such as cheese or Iberian ham, whose positive nutritional components have been widely proved by several studies.

Behind each product with a EU quality seal that is penalised by Nutriscore, there are smallholder farmers, producers, agricultural workers and a whole industry hit hard by Covid-19.

They have demonstrated to be true heroes during the pandemic and they do not deserve that a blind algorithm ignores their very particular situation.

We therefore call for the European Commission to open the debate about the algorithm that decides the final colour scale of the product before the Nutriscore scheme becomes mandatory.

More specifically, we request that the European Commission reconsider how certain vegetable fats are treated, so that we can avoid misleading situations such as the one I explained above with the Coca Cola and oilve oil.

Last but not least, Nutri-score is only one of the many systems that could be used to achieve the same goals. Italy or Czech Republic use alternative schemes, to name a few other countries.

As legislators, we need to have an open discussion, with the European institutions and the industry, and create a system that truly helps our consumers make healthier choices every time they go to the supermarket.

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