What’s the problem with Nutri-Score?

Clare Daley
May 18, 2023
5 min read
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What’s the problem with Nutri-Score?

France loves it, Italy’s banned it, and Germany is trying to gain greater control over it. We are, of course, talking about Nutri-Score.

The front-of-pack nutrition labelling system is used across Europe to help consumers make healthier choices. At one point, it was a frontrunner to become the EU’s standard nutrition label. But recently, Nutri-Score has faced criticism.

What makes Nutri-Score controversial? And why are some countries looking at other nutrition labelling schemes? Let’s take a closer look.  

Nutri-Score labelling: the benefits

Nutrition facts labels were first introduced in the 1990s, but the Nutri-Score label didn’t appear until 2017. The system was developed in France by the Ministry of Health (Santé Publique France). However, it’s now used in multiple countries, including Belgium, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Nutri-Score is the preferred front-of-pack nutrition labelling system in many countries because it’s:

  • Easy to understand: the A-E scoring system is simple to read, and consumers can easily compare products. As our blog post on how to read a UK or EU nutrition label explains, many shoppers aren’t sure how nutrition data is calculated, and the Nutri-Score panel distils information into a digestible format.
  • Eye-catching: colour coding the nutritional composition of food and beverages captures people’s attention and encourages them to make healthier choices.
  • Scientifically backed: Nutri-Score calculations are based on the British Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling system. Products are scored based on their energy, dietary fibre, proteins, saturated fatty acids, sugars, sodium, fruit, vegetable legume, nut and oil content per 100g of food or 100ml for beverages.
  • Used widely: as we’ve already mentioned, Nutri-Score has been adopted by several countries, so there’s an element of familiarity throughout Europe.

Nutri-Score problems: food for thought

While Nutri-Score seemed destined to take over Europe at one point, the system was dealt a blow in August 2022 when Italy banned Nutri-Score panels on product packaging.

The Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) criticised the way Nutri-Score grades products, stating it discriminates against some ingredients and doesn’t account for the individual dietary needs of each consumer. Some critics feel foods central to the Mediterranean diet, such as olive oil and parmesan, are unfairly graded by the Nutri-Score scheme.

Authorities also commented that Nutri-Score grades food and drink per 100 grams or millilitres rather than per serving. This method of calculation means rich foods like chorizo are being scored poorly, based on a quantity much higher than traditionally consumed.  

It’s not just Italy where Nutri-Score has hit a bump in the road, either. In Germany, RAL gGmbH (RAL) took over market surveillance and abuse tracking of the Nutri-Score system in March 2023.

Germany introduced voluntary Nutri-Score labelling in 2020, with over 600 brands signing up for the scheme. To date, no comment has been made on why Nutri-Score users will be more tightly scrutinised – but it does raise questions about how data can be manipulated to produce better results.

Other, general criticism of the Nutri-Score system has included:

  • Oversimplification: some opponents feel reducing nutrition to a colour-coded panel does not give consumers sufficient information to make an informed choice.
  • Scope limitations: Nutri-Score calculations are based purely on a food’s nutritional content and do not accommodate other factors such as animal welfare standards or the use of pesticides.
  • Specific needs: currently, Nutri-Score calculations aren’t tailored to the particular nutritional needs of different consumer groups – for example, young children, who need more fat in their diet than adults.
  • Overconsumption: shoppers may think the best-graded products can be consumed in limitless amounts, which leads to them taking in more calories than their recommended daily allowance.

What’s the alternative to Nutri-Score?

The biggest problem with nutrition labelling is that no single system has been adopted globally. As we discuss in our blog post on why front-of-pack nutrition labels are a headache for brands going international, no universal standard means food and beverage brands need to adapt their packaging for different markets. The result is that more and more countries are introducing their own labelling systems in an attempt to simplify nutrition messaging.

For example: in some markets, such as Chile, nutrition labelling is made more complex by additional advertising restrictions and warnings on product packaging. Consumers are being bombarded by competing messages and inconsistent iconography when they are trying to make a quick, healthy choice.

Meanwhile, in Britain, ‘traffic lights’ remain the most widely adopted form of front-of-pack nutrition labelling, despite such schemes not being mandatory. The UK’s regulatory focus is on new legislation like HFSS that impacts the placement and promotion of snack and convenience foods.

In the EU, while a motion has been tabled for a standardised nutrition facts label, debate continues about the best way to calculate and display information. Some stakeholders believe the Nordic Keyhole system is a better way of encouraging healthier food and drink systems, while Italian leaders have backed NutrInform Battery as their preferred national scheme.

Undoubtedly, Nutri-Score will continue to play a valuable role in helping consumers to make future healthy food choices. But will it be superseded by a different nutrition labelling scheme across Europe and beyond? Time will tell.

This blog post was written in May 2023.  Facts were correct at the time of writing.

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