February 17, 2021

How can we interpret the new Nutri-score labelling?

The Nutri-score only officially came to Luxembourg in 2020, after being used in France since 2016 and then Belgium since 2018. Its objective? To enable us to identify at a glance healthy food that maintains our health instead of damaging it. Let’s look at how to use this tool intelligently.

How does it work?

The Nutri-score is the official (but not compulsory) label for processed foods and drinks. It puts them into five categorises, from A (green) to E (red) according to the score they obtain. Levels A and B correspond to the most balanced foods, and may be consumed very often. For levels C and D, consumption must be moderate. For level E, it is better to make it the exception.

This score is determined by the product’s composition. Nutrients and foods that are good for the body generate positive points, while those that should be avoided reduce the score. The Nutri-score classes the product according to the result obtained: from A (score of -15 to -1) for the healthiest products, to E (score from 19 to 40) for the least healthy products.

On the positive side, the Nutri-score counts: the content of fruit, vegetables, pulses, oilseed, fibre and protein per 100 g of product. On the negative side, the Nutri-score counts the calories per 100 g, the quantity of salt, and the sugar and saturated fats content.

The strength of simplicity

The Nutri-score is very simple, and has the advantage of being extremely accessible. Stuck on the front of products, it catches the attention and can be interpreted at a glance. This is a short cut that enables you to avoid having to read the details of the nutritional composition and make a quick comparison between products.

If you take it into account when making your purchases, then the Nutri-score can improve your health. The Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN, Paris) compared the way we fill our baskets, with or without the Nutri-score. It noted that with this labelling, people tend to buy healthier products.

Over time, we can hope for a more generalised change. The Nutri-score has the capacity to trigger “nutritional competition” among brands. This would prompt the food industry to make changes to improve the nutritional quality of its products with less salt, less sugar, better fats, etc.

The downside

The Nutri-score suffers as a result of its main quality: it can be too simple. Some would prefer it to be more realistic, i.e. that it adapts and takes into account portions rather than always calculating its score on the basis of 100 g. This argument is made, for example, for olive oil. This has a score of D, based on an analysis of 100 ml of oil, but it generally ranks top of the food pyramid because it is extremely healthy, if you consume… a teaspoon full!

Others would like the Nutri-score to be more comprehensive. Its nutritional criteria do not say anything about additives, allergens, preservatives or artificial flavourings. To know this, you need to look at the ingredients list.

By focusing on nutritional criteria, we also close our eyes to the way products are cooked. The paradox of French fries speaks volumes: when purchased, they have a score of A, as they have yet to be submerged in the fryer!

Finally, the Nutri-score is limited in its use. As it is used on a voluntary basis, we are unlikely to see a day when junk food products (crisps, snacks, etc.) intentionally display a Nutri-score of “E”.

An appeal for common sense

Well understood, the Nutri-score remains a quick and effective tool to better choose what we put in our baskets. It is above all useful when comparing several products of the same range. For example, different brands of cereal may obtain different scores depending on the manufacturers’ recipes.

Knowing which processed products to choose does not of course exempt us from undertaking a more comprehensive reflection about our food. Beyond stickers and labels, we need to continue to question our eating habits. For example, let’s use the food pyramid to answer these three fundamental questions: are our meals balanced? Are our portions appropriate? What is the proportion of raw foodstuffs (fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fish, etc.) in our meals?

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