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Decision on food packaging is key for European anti-obesity strategy




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In the past weeks, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report into obesity in Europe. Its findings were both alarming and, yet, unsurprising. Across the continent, 59% of adults were found to be overweight and levels of obesity were found to be second highest in the world after the Americas, writes Colin Stevens.

The WHO report could not be timelier, as it shines a light on a problem of ‘epidemic proportions in Europe, with around 200,000 cancer cases and 1.2 million deaths a year related to complications from being overweight or obese. What’s more is that, according to recent trends, there is also little sign of obesity rates slowing down as prevalence rates have risen by 138% since 1975.

The challenge of educating and informing

Despite being such a pervasive challenge, researchers have long identified many of the leading causes of high obesity rates. For instance, studies have consistently found that receiving a better education is associated with a lower likelihood of being morbidly overweight. It is for this reason that the WHO report recommends making nutritional education a mandatory part of school curricula throughout Europe, a call that was recently echoed by Tudor Ciuhodaru, a socialist member of the European Parliament.

But the importance of education does not stop at the school gates, least of all when it comes to nutrition. Every day, consumers buy products without knowing – or being aware – of their nutritional value or composition. It is for this reason that the European Commission decided to pave the road towards adopting a standardized front-of-package labelling (FOPL) system, that would provide consumers around Europe with nutritional information that empowers them to make informed – and healthier - dietary choices.

Doing more harm than good

But while few people would argue with the need to give consumers the tools to make more healthier decisions when buying food, not all the FOPL systems currently being considered are up to task. For instance, one of the main contenders, the Nutri-score system, would do very little to inform consumers and could perhaps cause more harm than good.


The Nutri-score system is based on assigning products a grade, from A (the best) to E (the worst), which is presented on a traffic-light coloured label. The logic is simple: healthy foods have a good score, and unhealthy ones a bad one. The problems, however, arise from the system’s algorithm, which scores products based on the nutritional values of a 100g or 100ml portion. But not all products are consumed in that quantity, leading many healthy products - which have their rightful place in a balanced diet, such as ordinary salad condiments – to receive a failing score that could ward off unsuspecting consumers.

The distortions caused by the simplifications of Nutri-score, however, do not end there, because the algorithm is also indifferent to the distinction between saturated and unsaturated types of fat, or between unprocessed and ultra-processed foods. Moreover, the Nutri-score scheme is also blind to the use of artificial sweeteners, making it easy for junk food products to circumvent the system and obtain a deceptively positive score.

Better, not less information

But what would Nutri-score mean for European diets? For one, the system’s emphasis on penalising all high-fat foods would have a detrimental effect on products protected by denomination of origin labels. Already, the Italian cheese producers’ association, the French confederation of Roquefort, and other trade associations have voiced their concern about how the adoption of the Nutri-score, which would see them receive negative grades, could lead consumers away from their products.

In doing so, Nutri-score would not only be penalising local products and traditional culinary delicacies, but also several staples of the Mediterranean diet, such as cheeses, to olive oil, and other vegetable fats. Recognised around the globe as one of the healthiest eating regimens, the Mediterranean diet has been facing the growing threat of disappearing, as the younger generations in Greece, Italy, and Spain have embraced sweetened drinks and junk food. Rather than helping to protect and revive the Mediterranean diet, the Nutri-score would probably deal it a fatal blow.

When taking into account all these limitations, it is difficult to argue that the Nutri-score would help solve Europe’s obesity crisis. Rather than informing consumers, the system seems more likely to mislead. It is for this reason that nutritionist experts such as Luca Piretta have been calling for a rethink, casting doubt on the need to classify food into one of two groups – good or bad – without dealing with the nuances. In a recent interview, he reminded that a balanced diet is “not made only of one type of food. Not by green-coded food that makes you think you can eat that with no limits, nor by red-coded food that makes that food appear as forbidden.”

Instead of giving consumers less information through an oversimplified grading system, it is possible to provide them with better information that can help make informed decisions. It is for this reason that the Italian government has given its backing to an alternative FOPL system called Nutrinform, which instead uses battery symbols to tell consumers how much energy, fats and sugars are contained in a product as a proportion of their daily recommended total.

With the final decision on which system to adopt is yet to be made by the European Commission, the stakes could not be higher. If Europe is to start effectively tackling the problem of obesity, a key part of the strategy must be to inform and educate consumers around making better choices. Choosing the best labelling system that will go on every food product is a critical first step, and it is one the EU cannot afford to get wrong.

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