Safe Advocacy: Nutriscore is ineffective in distinguishing healthy from unhealthy food 

There are many issues with the Nutriscore system that could cause major public health concerns if it were to be chosen as part of the European nutrition labeling schemes.

Nutriscore, the system with a colour-coded label that ranks foods on a scale from A (healthy) to E (unhealthy), has been generating many uncertainties among scientists, consumers, and national authorities regard to its efficacity in properly informing consumers. The last criticism comes from Safe Advocacy, a Brussels-based Non-Governmental Organization specializing in protecting and representing EU consumers in the food sector. In its report, Safe Advocacy puts under scrutiny several issues of the Nutriscore system that would pose a major concern for public health if it were to be chosen at the EU harmonized Front of Pack Nutrition Labelling schemes, FOPNL.

Since several pathologies such as diabetes, heart diseases and cancer are linked to unhealthy diets, the Nutriscore label was created in France to make it easier for consumers to read and understand nutritional properties and help them make informed and healthy food choices. The Nutriscore is currently in application in seven European countries. The calculation depends on the sum of the points of the negative items to limit, such as energy, simple sugars, saturated fatty acids and salt. The score obtained by a product allows for a grade from A, dark green, for the most favourable on the nutritional level, to E, dark orange, for the least favourable. But apparently, the Nutriscore algorithm has many shortcomings, weaknesses and limitations.

The ability of the positive elements to be favoured, such as fibre, protein, fruit or vegetable and dried vegetables considered by the Nutriscore to offset the negative ones, increases the risk of consumers assuming the negative elements without being aware of them. Even the Scientific Committee of the Nutriscore admitted this serious deficiency after a recent algorithm revision. For example, both extra virgin olive oil, with 77g/100 monounsaturated fats and olive pomace oil, with 8g/100 monounsaturated fats, are getting a B score, despite the difference in monounsaturated fats and different amounts of vitamins A and E known for their anticarcinogenic and antioxidant action. Also, chocolate milk drink with cocoa powder gets a B score, although their high sugar content and crucial factors such as the degree of processing of a product are not considered.

More than 20% of the products evaluated by #Nutriscore with good scores are ultra-processed foods, which increase the risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases by 58% and cerebrovascular events by 52%. Click To Tweet

More than 20% of the products assessed with good scores are ultra-processed foods instead, whose consumption is linked to premature death, with a 58% increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and a 52% higher risk of dying from cerebrovascular events. These examples show that the Nutriscore system is inefficient and misleading for consumers. The ineffectiveness of the Nutriscore is also clear when we deal with prepacked fried products, such as fries, breaded meat or fish, that usually get a Nutriscore of A or B. The lack of elements not considered by Nutriscore, such as additives, colourants and endocrine disruptors, is also very dangerous for consumers.

Moreover, there is no difference between the amount of present natural fibres and the added ones. Naturally, present substances are not different from the artificially added ones, which benefits ultra-processed products disadvantaging the natural ones. Adding fibres to an ultra-processed product makes it possible to have a better Nutriscore. And so apples and pre-cooked potatoes are considered healthy despite their nutritional differences. At the same time, Coke light is rated B, better than fruit such as pineapple, which is C because of its high sugar content. Corn flakes are B, although it is an ultra-processed food to limit, and a vegan burger that is rated even A despite its five ultra-processed ingredients, medium levels of fat, salt and additives.

The Farm to Fork Strategy includes several initiatives to improve consumer food information, such as the proposal for a Front of Pack – FOP nutrition labelling system to help consumers make informed and healthy choices. It is clear that the Nutriscore does not fit the scope and purpose of the Food Information to Consumers – FIC Regulation, and it does not match the objectives of the Farm to Fork Strategy.

SAFE is therefore advocating to promote the adoption of a better system: the Nutriscore should not be suggested as the next harmonized FOP label at the EU level, but much more information is needed to give real value to a food product. It is then essential that the European Commission comes forward with a proposal to display all food components and product characteristics truthfully and clearly.

Agronomist, nutritional consultant and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.