Front-of-pack nutrition labels: why are certain agro-industrial firms resisting?

In a supermarket candy and cookie aisle. October 31, France adopted the NutriScore, a labelling system designed to inform consumers about the nutritional value of food choices. Defotoberg/Shutterstock

After nearly four years of effort, France recently adopted a food-labelling system that will allow consumers to see and compare at a glance the nutritional value of packaged food products. The government approved the “NutriScore” label, and it was signed into law in October. But some of the biggest global agro-industrial conglomerates are refusing to adopt it.

According to the UFC Que Choisir consumer-advocate organisation, the Alliance 7 trade group, which includes major manufacturers of breakfast cereals, candies and cookies, is encouraging its members to instead select another type of nutritional label. The trade group’s position is aligned with that of six food conglomerates – Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever et PepsiCo (known as the “Big 6”) – who announced in March that they intended to develop an alternative system for the European Union. Some are also members of the Alliance 7, and the trade group’s “manifesto” states that it wants to “help consumers making informed food choices”. But some elements indicate that this strategy may have other goals.

Specifically, we wanted to know the classification of products from the “Big 6”, based on the official NutriScore. The results show that the majority are classified as being of low nutritional value – and suggest that the big corporations’ efforts to install an alternative label may be aimed more at confusing consumers than helping them.

A label adopted after a long political process

It’s worthwhile looking back on the political process that led up to the adoption of NutriScore system, developed in our research team in Paris 13 University. Based on a report delivered in 2014, the previous French minister of health, Marisol Touraine, chose the principle of a voluntary front-of-pack nutrition label. The proposal, based on EU regulations, was approved in December 2015 and the decree published in July 2016 with, at that point, no specific choice for the label’s graphical format.

The announcement of the selection of the NutriScore in March 2017 was based on a series of scientific studies, in particular the results of a large-scale trial conducted in 60 supermarkets at the request of manufacturers and retailers. It compared several label formats, and the one selected, the NutriScore, was confirmed by France’s current health minister, Agnès Buzyn, and co-signed by the ministers of Agriculture and the Economy.

NutriScore, the official French front-of-pack label.

The NutriScore has five colours with the goal of informing consumers on foods’ nutritional qualities and thus allowing them to compare between food. The selection of this label was based on numerous studies published in international peer-reviewed journals. This approach that led the EU office of the World Health Organisation to commend “France’s robust use of evidence to inform this decision”.

An evidence-based label

Studies conducted during the consultation process as well as independent research from teams at Inserm, INRA and other universities in France all have shown the superiority of NutriScore compared to other formats. Research looked at consumer perception, objective understanding and the labels’ impact on the nutritional quality of purchases in a range of experimental and real-life designs. The results of these studies are consistent, and show a greater efficiency of the NutriScore, both for the general population and for disadvantaged subgroups of the population or subjects suffering from chronic conditions like diabetes.

Despite the evidence, and in disregard of the positions of consumer associations who are asking for the NutriScore to be implemented, several agro-industrial lobbying groups have opposed the label. They resort to a simple strategy, shown to be successful in other sectors, such as tobacco: Unable to stop a political decision, they conjure up an alternative system – one potentially less damaging to their economic interests – by justifying its supposed advantages for the consumer.

The Big 6 have thus advocated a modified version of the “multiple traffic light system” currently used in the United Kingdom, to be called “Nutri-Couleurs” in France.

Ten pieces of data to help choose between a yogurt and a fruit purée

Modified British

Various studies compared this label with the NutriScore and it was shown to be less efficient. Indeed, the NutriScore provides only one indicator of colour for the overall nutritional quality of the food: the foods having the highest nutritional quality are labelled in green. The alternative label provides information for each nutrient – a food could be labelled in green for sugars, but other colours for salt or fats. This type of label can be more difficult to understand for consumers. To choose between two products – for example, a yogurt and a fruit purée – the consumer needs to quickly compare ten different pieces of information, instead of just two with the NutriScore.

Moreover, the alternative label requires consumers to prioritize the information it contains. Between a product high in salt and low in lipids, and another that’s high in lipids and low in salt, which to select? This system therefore tends to confuse consumers compared to a more synthetic system.

To understand better the manufacturers’ objectives in proposing an alternative label, let’s immerse ourselves in the world they would have us experience. In its “manifesto Nutri-Couleurs”, published in October, the Alliance 7 trade group proposes, as do the Big 6, a modified version of the British “traffic light” system. Instead of deriving the colours from the content in nutrients for 100g, as in the original version, the thresholds would be based on a portion – in other words, the quantity usually consumed by an individual, which is extremely variable from one person to the next. Because manufacturers set the portion sizes of their products, they could manipulate them to give a better classification for their products than they would have had otherwise. The thresholds for the various colours have not yet been disclosed, and appear to be still under discussion.

How the Twix bar could go from red to amber

The case of the Twix chocolate bar, revealed by the UFC Que Choisir is particularly relevant:

“The labels for Bounty and Twix chocolate bars (produced by Mars Incorporated) indicate portions corresponding to a single bar of the confectionery, which is sold with two bars in an individual packet. [This change is enough] to drastically lower the level of sugar and fats in the portion”.

Using the NutriScore, the Twix bar is classified as red (E), the lowest nutritional quality:

Nutriscore for a Twix candy bar.

In the standard British system, all indicators are set to red, except for salt, which is set at amber:

British ‘traffic light’ label for a Twix bar.

With the modified label proposed by the “Big 6” and Alliance 7 group (of which Mars is a member), ratings are set based on the recommended portion – chosen by the manufacturer. Thresholds between colours not having been made public yet, the hypothesis is that that for red would be set at 20% of the reference intakes. Under this assuming, all indicators would change to… amber.

Modified

Even with lower thresholds for red (15%, for example), most indicators would still be amber. And yet the product itself has not changed in the least.

Fleury-Michon, Danone and McCain support the NutriScore system

The EU commission confirmed the France’s selection of the NutriScore, justifying its support by the importance of public health. Given the consistency between the French and the EU positions, it’s worth asking why the members of the Alliance 7 trade group still refuse to use the NutriScore. Moreover, some retailers, including Intermarché, Auchan and Leclerc, have pledged to use the NutriScore on their products. Other agroindustry corporations, including Fleury-Michon, Danone and McCain, have also adopted the label.

To attempt to answer this question, we looked at the NutriScore classifications of the products from the Big 6 corporations. Thanks to the Open Food Facts participative database, it’s possible to know the nutritional composition of most food products, and therefore the NutriScore classification even for those that do not provide this information.

The results indicate that corporations supporting the alternative label are those whose product portfolio contains foods high in fat, sugar or salt, all of which would be classified as lower nutritional quality in the NutriScore. Products featured include sweetened beverages, chocolate, confectionery, biscuits, breakfast cereals, ice creams or salty snacks. For example, in the Mars corporation, 100% of foods in the Open Food Facts database are classified as orange or red; for Mondelez, 86% of the products; and 55% for Nestlé, 54% for Coca-Cola, 52% for Unilever and 46% for PepsiCo.

Distribution of NutriScore grades for Mars products.
Distribution of NutriScore grades for Mondelez products.
Distribution of NutriScore grades for products from Nestlé.
Distribution of the NutriScore grades for Coca-Cola products.
Distribution of NutriScore grades for Unilever products.
Distribution of NutriScore grades for PepsiCo products.

The position of the corporations refusing to adopt official EU and French label thus appears to be primarily guided by their commercial interests and their marketing and strategic vision of the situation. The use of an alternative label would lead to more consumer confusion rather than less. From our point of view, consumers deserve transparence on a topic as essential to their health as nutrition. They should decide whether the position of these corporations is respectful of this imperative – and to react accordingly.

This article was originally published in French

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.