Go to a French supermarket, and you’ll find lots of foods with the Nutri-Score A to E rating. The rating has gained popularity and now appears in Spain, Belgium, and Germany. The idea is a good one: Indicate if products are broadly good or bad for your health. The score would be a way to offset the lofty claims made by industrials and make it easy to compare products with one another.
I only recently paid attention to those ratings and was blown away by how unreasonable they were. Let’s look at a couple of examples and see what they tell us:
All those products have the best possible Nutri-Score. How could this be?
Pictures under Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 3.0 Unported from the useful Open Food Facts.
You could argue that meat doesn’t deserve an A rating. But the fact that white, entirely artificial and industrial sliced bread gets the rating is mind-blowing (it lacks nutritional value, creates blood sugar spikes, raises the risk for diabetes, etc.).
The scoring method is to blame. But this isn’t a surprise: Nutrition is a complex topic, and the formula is incredibly simple: A few simple additions and substractions based on what’s in the food.
From Santé Publique France, Conditions of Use of the « Nutri-Score » Logo.
This excerpt comes from pages 20 and 21 and is broadly how the score is determined. Without being an expert, a few problems are apparent:
- Energy density is a bad: This will hurt natural energy-dense food such as nuts and meat while favoring useless artificial food (such as white bread)
- Carbohydrates aren’t a bad thing (which explains why bread and pasta can get A ratings)
- Saturated fats are bad: Evidence on that topic is inconclusive. They seem to have both benefits and downsides and seem highly dependent on how much processed the food is. Ironically, artificial food managed to replace saturated fats with trans fats, which are known to be terrible for you.
- “Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and rapeseed, walnut and olive oils” are grouped in the same category. This doesn’t make any sense.
Overall, the score will favor artificial foods. As they are created in labs, they can be tweaked to increase their score. Natural foods can’t and are left at a disadvantage.
Let’s go back to the fact that olive oil and rapeseed oil are seen as equivalent according to the rating. If you’ve done any research on rapeseed oil, this will seem shocking. Their high omega-6 content raises the omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio, which is linked to increases in asthma, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer, diabetes, inflammation, infertility, etc. Check out this article to learn more and have links to the scientific research on the subject. So why the rapeseed oil promotion? Why not just stick with the battle-tested olive oil? Most likely because the EU produces massive amounts of it. This isn’t a nutrition question.
Finally, let’s not forget we are still learning about nutrition. Over half of adults in the EU are overweight. Clearly, we do not have all the answers (and we’ve made massive mistakes over the years!). The fact the Nutri-Score doesn’t seem disruptive to people’s habits should be worrying. Convincing people to eat white bread, pasta, and low-quality industrially extracted vegetable oils don’t seem like the way to go.
What worries me the most about the Nutri-Score is that it will mess up people’s common sense regarding food. Let’s take two meals: The first is vegetables with a small piece of meat, the second is just pasta (not even whole-grained or fresh). Both would have an A rating, but anyone reasonable would know the second is worse for you. Yet, the State is now pushing the idea that those are the same. Over time, people will internalize the scores and think of unhealthy foods as good since they have the best possible rating.
For now, I’ll stick to an idea from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: If your great-grandmother wouldn’t eat it or recognize it as food, don’t eat it.