This week, Switzerland’s Council of States decided the federal government should create a framework for the use of Nutri-Score to avoid some food producers being disadvantaged, reported SRF.
Switzerland’s upper house is no doubt responding to complaints by Swiss cheese producers and fruit growers that the nutritional labelling system, which was developed in France, risks making their products harder to sell.
Nutri-scores range from A (the most healthy) to E. The score is mainly applied to packaged food – it needs to be printed on something. You won’t often find it in the fresh fruit and vegetables section. Although some unprocessed but packaged foods such as eggs bear ratings.
Cheese, a product high in saturated fat and salt, typically gets a score of C or D. Fruit juices, with their high free sugar content score poorly too, often scoring D, the second most unhealthy rating.
The main argument against the labelling system is that it does not take enough factors into account. Food producers argue that the system does not distinguish between natural products and highly processed foods with many substitutes and additives.
Those in charge of the score admit that it is not perfect and continue to tweak its formulae. It recently downgraded drinks containing artificial sweetener. In May 2023, the WHO advised against using these additives because of their risk of contributing to obesity and type II diabetes. This took many drinks containing artificial sweeteners from B to C. Further adjustments have taken drinks such as apple spritz, up from D to C, although it is unclear why.
Lobbying around Nutri-scores was inevitable. But the idea that natural sugar in fruit juice is different from added sugar, which is natural product from sugar beet and sugar cane is hard to defend. It’s all natural and it’s all sugar. To clear up the confusion, the WHO created the term free sugar1 to differentiate between the sugar contained in whole fruit (healthy because it is unprocessed and digests differently) and the sugar in fruit juice (typically as unhealthy as the added sugar in other drinks). The WHO recommends limiting the consumption of all free sugar, including that contained in fruit juice, a position that undermines the argument of those producing and selling fruit juice.
Producers of fatty, salty cheese face a similar reality. Natural is not automatically healthy.
Nutri-score is far from perfect. Some healthy fat is considered part of a good diet. Moderate amounts of olive oil for example. However, olive oil is often rated C or D. Eggs, no longer considered the health hazard they once were, but never-the-less a food that will raise blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels in healthy people if consumed excessively, score A. Then there are dubious Nutri-scores that have almost certainly been gamed. A few examples from many are shown below.
In the end Nutri-score is another imperfect layer of food information. Something to consider, but in some cases to be taken with (or without!) a large pinch of salt, especially where lobbying is involved.
SRF article (in German)
1 WHO free sugar definition: Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.