Posted on Feb 25, 2021
For the fourth year in a row, a panel of nutrition experts awarded the prize for the healthiest eating regime to the world-renowned Mediterranean diet. The accolade came as little surprise given that the traditional diet, rich in plants, grains, fish and olive oil, has been shown to protect against ailments from heart disease to diabetes and depression.
Indeed, just days after the Mediterranean diet was once again dubbed the globe’s healthiest, a new study by researchers from the University of Edinburgh suggested that adherents to the diet also may enjoy better cognitive functioning, including memory and thinking tasks, later in life.
Unfortunately, the famously healthy diet is under fire in its own region of origin, as an aggressive push by seven European countries to impose the French nutritional labelling system Nutri-score across the bloc has sparked alarm from public health experts, policymakers in Mediterranean countries, and the producers of agricultural heritage products like extra virgin olive oil and acorn-fed Iberian ham.
Moving towards harmonised food labelling
The seven states—France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands—which have hitched their horses to Nutri-score’s wagon argue it’s the best fit for the European Commission’s plans to introduce a harmonised, mandatory front-of-pack (FOP) labelling scheme by the end of 2022.
The notion of a universal FOP nutritional label, part of the European Commission’s (EC) much-vaunted Farm-to-Fork strategy (F2F), builds on studies which have repeatedly shown consumers want to make healthier food choices but find current food labels confusing. As European consumer groups have echoed the call for easier-to-read labels that would help customers grasp the nutritional value of a foodstuff at a glance, a number of different labelling schemes has sprung up across the continent, from the Traffic Light regime in the UK to Sweden’s keyhole system.
A simple, uniform approach to FOP labelling could help to educate consumers, improve dietary habits, and promote healthier lifestyles. A poorly-designed system, however, could sow more confusion by pushing consumers away from foods with established health benefits—precisely the concern now emerging over the Nutri-score system.
A simple system raises complex questions
Nutri-score’s proponents argue that the system is a simple solution—its algorithm gives food products a letter grade from A to E, validating healthy ingredients by conferring a green ‘A’ rating on foodstuffs high in protein, fruit and fibre content, while consigning those with high fat, sugar and sodium content to the bottom of the league with red ‘E’ ratings.
The system’s very simplicity, however, could turn out to be its undoing. As the labelling system’s critics have pointed out, Nutri-score judges foods based on a standardised serving of 100 grams or 100 millilitres, heedless of the fact that, while someone might easily pour themselves 100 millilitres of fizzy drink, no one would consume the same quantity of olive oil in a single serving.
Olive oil, one of the bedrocks of the Mediterranean diet, has emerged as a particular flashpoint in the debate over whether Nutri-score is a fit-for-purpose labelling scheme. Nutri-score’s 100 mL benchmark and its focus on the substance’s fat content produces a middling grade for olive oil at best—to the exclusion of the wider health benefits the oil is known for.
The prospect of olive oil receiving a lower Nutri-score than Coke Zero or Chocapic cereal has already led Spain to grant the healthy oil an exemption from the label, with the Spanish health ministry recognising olive oil is “essential to the Mediterranean diet”. In the wake of the decision, other groups of food producers—such as the manufacturers of the famed Iberian ham, which studies have shown has cardiovascular benefits—are seeking similar exemptions.
Nutri-score’s promoters have admitted the labelling system has “imperfections and limitations”, but argue these are no more severe than any other public health tool. The system’s detractors ask whether it would be better to adopt a system that doesn’t require a constantly-expanding list of exceptions to avoid lumping mainstays of the Mediterranean diet in with low-sugar ice cream and chocolate cereal. Competing FOP systems, such as Italy’s Nutrinform Battery label, claim to do just that.
Seeing the bigger picture
Could Nutri-score’s limitations– especially its tendency to underrate the health benefits of products like extra virgin olive oil, while giving top marks to ultra-processed foods – hasten the decline of the heritage products which have historically made up the backbone of European diets?
A growing number of European countries are already seeing a worrying increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt, with recent research estimating these food groups are contributing to up to half of individuals’ total daily energy intake. Those dietary shifts help explain why more than 50 percent of the adult population in the EU, as well as and one in three children (in the six to nine age group), are now overweight or obese – a statistic which has translated into significant increases in cardiovascular disease and mortality.
Properly executed, a continent-wide FOP labelling system could support consumers as they seek to make better nutritional choices. While labelling ought to be simple, critics of systems such as Nutri-score insist it also should have the flexibility to present a spectrum of information that enables informed dietary choices in the context of varied and healthy nutrition. They also hold EU governments should promote traditional diets like the Mediterranean diet, which have long been key to Europeans’ good health.
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