In a recent article published in The Conversation , Manuel Parras Rosa, Carla Marano Marcolini, Esther López-Zafra and Francisco José Torres Ruiz, professors at the University of Jaén (UJA) and members of the Caja Rural de Jaén Chair José Luis García-Lomas Hernández de Economía, Comercialización y Cooperativismo Oleícola, address the application of Nutri-Score nutritional labeling in Europe and how it affects products such as extra virgin olive oil.
Improving the nutritional conditions of the population is one of the great challenges of the 21st century. This is stated in the Millennium Goal 2, which highlights the importance of a "healthy, nutritious and sufficient" diet. But what is meant by a healthy and nutritious diet? How to help the consumer to recognize which foods have these qualities?
One of the most valued initiatives in this regard is the introduction of nutritional labeling as a tool to offer consumers clear, concise and truthful food information to guide their purchase and consumption decision.
Although the European Commission has not yet officially decided on any specific system, in practice, one of the most prevalent in Europe is the Nutri-Score. This system, developed in France, uses a gradation of colors and letters to represent greater or lesser nutritional quality in the food. From dark green (letter A) for healthier foods to red (letter E) for less healthy. The yellow color (letter C) occupies the central place.
It is an option that, at first glance, is very intuitive and easy for consumers to use and interpret. However, there is evidence that the Nutri-Score system might not be the best.
An algorithm that omits "beneficial nutrients"
The algorithm on which the Nutri-Score is based assigns points based on the nutritional composition per 100 grams or 100 milliliters of product and takes into account the content of less healthy elements (calories, sugar, saturated fat and salt) and more favorable ( fiber, protein and the percentage of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and oleaginous fruits). So far, everything is correct. However, the formula omits "beneficial nutrients" within the overall diet, such as vitamins, minerals or essential fatty acids, among others.
In other words, the algorithm used is oversimplifying. The immediate consequence is that it does not correctly classify highly healthy products, such as virgin olive oils (AOV). Initially, the classification results gave AOVs a letter D (orange). After much criticism, the algorithm was modified, finally obtaining a letter C (yellow).
But it is still insufficient. With this classification, virgin olive oils (AOV and Extra Virgin Olive Oil-EVOO) are equated to refined seed oils, all scoring with a letter C. This greatly devalues the virgins, which are pure olive juice and whose nutritional properties are recognized worldwide.
In addition, its comparison with the common olive oil itself, also refined, with equal scores or nutritional value, will make the consumer opt for the cheapest oil. NutriScore forgets that the same product category can have different qualities, as happens with olive oil. And this deserves a proper classification because otherwise we would confuse the consumer.
Exclude olive oil
Recently, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs announced that olive oils are going to be excluded from the Nutri-Score system. In addition, they are even working to extend this measure to the rest of the countries.
A priori, it is better for olive oils to be excluded than to appear in yellow (letter C). However, is this measure sufficient? It may happen that removing the AOV from the system gives an image that "they have something to hide", generating even more confusion. Also, what happens if, finally, in other countries the AOV is still within the system and scoring with a letter C? Exports would be seriously affected. Wouldn't it be more effective to fight for a higher ranking, the one that actually corresponds to them (letter A), instead of hiding them?
To top it all, there are other examples, including acorn-fed ham, that show that the Nutri-Score system has serious weaknesses that detract from it. Some countries, such as Italy, have rejected its implementation and have developed their own nutritional system (NutrInform Battery), precisely claiming that the Nutri-Score system is contrary to the principles of the Mediterranean Diet.
Warning systems as an alternative
Ultimately, it is necessary to have nutritional labeling systems so that the consumer better understands the information on the label. However, we should not rush and opt for one of them without having exhaustive and rigorous studies that prioritize the consumer's good.
In this sense, many professionals have defended warning systems, such as the one used in Chile, a mandatory labeling for those products that have excessive amounts of ingredients harmful to health, such as sugar, salt or saturated fat. As this is a label that only provides "bad" information, it does not find the support of the industry, which, curiously, seems to prefer the Nutri-Score system. However, Chilean researchers highlight that neither employment nor wages have been affected in the Chilean food industry since this system was imposed.
On the contrary, its positive results are demonstrated, such as a reduction in the purchase of unhealthy products, a better understanding and identification of healthy foods and a necessary reformulation of those foods with worse nutritional conditions. By the way, the reformulation of food, together with education and nutritional information, are key to improving the diet of the population, as indicated by organizations such as the World Health Organization. Something that will never happen if you do not have a system that prioritizes consumer welfare.