Bulging waist lines and high rates of heart disease, cancer and type II diabetes are putting increasing pressure on healthcare systems, so the world is on the lookout for ways to tackle the problem. One is food labelling. But few producers want their products labelled as unhealthy. Swiss farmers are no exception.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), these diseases account for 71% of all deaths. Because food choices are central to the rates of these non-communicable diseases, helping the world make healthier food and drink choices makes sense.
However, nutrition is complex. Because we eat many foods it is impossible to observe the impact of a single one. Interactions between foods add to the confusion. And as the science progresses the complexity increases. For example, emerging research on the gut microbiome has revealed links between food and the immune system and hormones, such as insulin. Previously unseen insights such as the negative impacts of pesticides and the agricultural use of antibiotics on our health via our digestive system have been revealed by the new research.
In the face of this complexity, a team of French researchers came up with the Nutri-Score, which rates products from A (green) to E (red), A being the best and E the worst. Products receive positive points for containing fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, and certain oils (rapeseed, walnut and olive), protein and fibre and negative points for energy density, sugar, salt and saturated fat.
Nutri-Score is far from perfect. For example it struggles with the complexities of processed fruit. Research recommends whole fruit but not fruit juice, which is typically as high in free sugar as soda. Some argue that fruit juice products get higher Nutri-Score ratings than they should given that the WHO includes the natural sugars present in fruit juice in its definition of sugar.
Nor does Nutri-Score tackle controversial foods such as dairy, which have long been marketed as a crucial source of calcium, something for which the evidence is thin. Populations consuming lots of dairy products are more rather than less likely to end up with broken bones. And dairy consumption appears to be associated with prostate cancer, possibly a consequence of the growth hormones in milk. Some nutritionalists now recommend that dairy lose its special status and be presented as optional.
So why are Swiss farmers upset?
Some Swiss retailers, such as Migros, Coop and Aldi, have adopted the voluntary Nutri-score system, which means some farm products sold in Switzerland risk being presented to customers labelled with poor scores.
The Swiss Farmer’s Union (SFU) argues that the labelling system unfairly penalises some farm products, in particular fruit juices and milk, reports RTS.
Calorie dense fruit juices, with their high sugar content compare poorly to water and other calorie free beverages. Milk, another calorie dense drink with the added disadvantage of saturated fat compares poorly too.
The SFU argues that milk and fruit juice are natural and cannot be directly compared to less natural products such as calorie-free soda, although they fail to mention water.
It is not right that natural products be compared to soda, said Michel Darbellay of the SFU. We cannot simply judge foods based on their nutrients, he said, arguing in favour of the food pyramid that categorises foods into a consumption hierarchy.
One suggestion by the SFU is to consider the degree of processing and the presence of additives.
However, the Nutri-score already considers the level of processing and has a specific section on processed fruit. It could be argued that the Nutri-score is already too kind to fruit juice.
In addition, using concepts such as additives and natural are problematic because they overlook the end effect of the food or drink and can be gamed. For example, filtered sugarcane juice could be presented as having no added sugar and pork scratchings could be sold as a pure natural food.
In any case there is a natural, additive-free, unprocessed product that beats all drinks: water.