Increased scrutiny of Nestlé should call the Nutri-score system it uses into question

The leak of an internal Nestlé presentation, reported on this week by the Financial Times, revealed that over 60% of the multinational firm’s mainstream food and drink products do not meet a "recognised definition of health". The findings have understandably prompted concern, since it’s quite problematic that the largest food company in Europe is still producing predominantly unhealthy products while obesity continues to affect a staggering 20% of Europeans.

But while Nestlé has spent the past week attempting to repair their reputation following the leak, not enough attention has been paid to Nestlé’s front-of-pack nutritional label (FOPNL) of choice, Nutri-score, which gives good ‘grades’ to many of Nestlé’s products with questionable health properties. The flawed algorithm used by the Nutri-score system - present on almost all Nestlé products - allows them to reformulate products in order to seem healthier, to the detriment of smaller producers who cannot easily modify the compositions of the food they sell.

Nutri-score’s loopholes are also alarming beyond their manipulation by Nestlé, given that the controversial nutritional labelling system has also swayed several powerful European governments including France, Germany and Belgium. Unless alternative solutions are taken more seriously into consideration, Nutri-score’s encroaching influence will continue to threaten European health and husbandry.

Nutri-score’s greenwashing of processed foods

Over the past seven years Nestlé has succeeded in reducing the sugar and sodium content by approximately 15%. However, as nutritional scientist Professor Marion Nestle (no relation) explains, slashing the content of sugar, saturated fat and salt “without changing the flavor profile” is not easy and all too often involves substituting these ingredients with processed additives that have limited health benefits.

But what makes Nestlé’s predominantly insalubrious offering particularly problematic is the fact that the Nutri-score labelling system helps to make these foods appear healthier than they really are. Although Nestlé’s website claims to “believe everyone has the right to know what’s in the food they eat”, their choice of FOPNL which amalgamates nutritional data to produce a score which fails to show a complete nutritional profile, belies this statement.

Nutri-score considers the levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat present in a fixed 100g/100ml serving of a product in order to assign a colour from green to red and letter from A to E. While this simplistic ‘traffic-light’ coding might seem to aid healthy decision-making the system’s algorithm produces a single score that is often unrepresentative of the food’s actual make-up, thereby inaccurately guiding consumers.

This oversimplifying system rewards Nestlé and other processed food companies for replacing sugar with processed additives, and fails to expose their lack of nutritious content or the degree to which they’ve been modified. To make matters worse, the opaque scheme also penalizes naturally healthy uni-ingredient foods such as olive oil (which receives a C grade) and cheese (predominantly assigned a D grade) without considering that not all fats are harmful—all while overlooking natural micronutrients such as vitamins.

While some Nestlé products such as a San Pellegrino fizzy drink do receive a Nutri-score E, other products like their dairy-free Wunda Milk, receives an A—despite the fact that the synthetic milk-replacement is produced using ultra-processed peas. Anthony Fardet, a researcher at France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research commented that with Nutri-score, "We end up with such aberrations where sugary breakfast cereals for children and (diet) sodas are well rated."

The fact that Nestlé was sued in 2018 for mislabelling foods containing genetically modified organisms as containing ‘No GMO Ingredients’, and again in 2020 for bottling groundwater and selling it as spring water, makes the adoption of Nutri-score is only the most recent example of misleading consumers. It doesn’t take a cynic to recognise that Nestlé didn’t adopt Nutri-score in 2019 out of goodwill. The company is, in fact, so keen on Nutri-score that, not content to slap Nutri-score on all of their own products by 2022, they have even lobbied the EU to expedite Nutri-score’s adoption.

Europe’s baffling resignation

Unfortunately, Nestlé is just one of Nutri-score’s standard-bearers, a group which includes advocates from multinationals to policymakers. Just last month, Luxembourg became the latest of seven nations to choose Nutri-score, albeit on a voluntary basis. But reservations abound even among the country’s Consumer Protection League who supported the rollout, with one spokesperson admitting that Nutri-score allows producers to “reduce the sugar, fat or salt content and substitute additives that aren't necessarily healthier”, and another explaining that since even healthy products receive a “bad mark”, the score needs refining.

Ever since Spain introduced Nutri-score on a voluntary basis, the same hang-ups have polarized parliamentary opinion, ending in the suggestion of an exemption for olive oil—a decision which only further infuriated producers of jamón ibérico and manchego cheese. That these governments’ have selected the Nutri-score system despite its evident flaws, is particularly confusing given the existence of other labels which do a better job of nutritional evaluation.

Recognising the limitations of Nutri-score, Italy - the second healthiest nation in the world according to Bloomberg’s Healthiest Country Index - has produced their own FOPNL called Nutrinform. Unlike Nutri-score’s one-size-fits-all system, Nutrinform displays nutritional information through battery symbols showing individual percentages of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a single portion, compared to the average daily intake for an adult. This table format allows consumers to make actual informed decisions about their food. But despite the fact that a recent survey showed that the majority of Italian citizens prefer Nutrinform to the French equivalent and the scheme enjoys the support of European producers and policymakers alike, Nutrinform is up against a veritable Nutri-score coalition in Europe.

The recent revelations about Nestlé should put European governments more on guard against the problematic Nutri-score scheme. Given the rising tide of grass roots and governmental resistance across the bloc, pro-Nutri-score lawmakers will have to consider if it is wise to settle on a nutritional label which is failing European consumers and producers, particularly in lieu of popular alternative solutions.

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