A more effective Nutri-Score in 2023?

Sciences et Avenir: Each French person consumes an average of 100 grams of sugar (16 units) per day, which is four times the WHO recommendations. Some have criticized the Nutri-Score algorithm for not being strict enough about this ingredient. Will products with high sugar content be judged more seriously?

Professor Chantal Julia: Yes, indeed. Sugar has a lower energy density than fat, so it is relatively highly valued for this property. We will correct this imbalance by adding 5 “disadvantage” points to products with a high sugar content.

“Some cereals are still in category A, but products containing significant amounts of sugar will move to C”

Will we be able to find breakfast, dessert or spread cereals in France with a Nutri-Score A, B or C?

There are no fundamental changes to Nutri-Score with this new algorithm. Too sweet candies are already misclassified, and so are too fat and too sweet. But remember that it is not about banning these products, it is just about regulating their consumption and comparing them with other products with more favorable nutritional content. For example, spreads made entirely of almonds are well appreciated. As for grains, some that are still classified as A but contain significant amounts of sugar will move to C.

Why can’t added sugars be taken into account in the Nutri-Score algorithm? Are they not harmful to health?

Added sugars, i.e. sugars that do not naturally occur in food, are not listed on a product’s nutrition label. All sugars are listed. For example, applesauce is naturally rich in sugar from fruit; the industrialist may choose to add more sugar to his compote, but the label will show the sum of the fruit sugar and the sugar added by the manufacturer. We would like to be able to divide between the two types of sugar, but for that we need to change the legislation… at the European level.

You are also considering changing the algorithm for salt because of its harmful effects on blood pressure and the associated risk of hypertension. How will you do it?

Salt puts us in the same configuration as sugar. The low energy density of some tasty products makes it possible to evaluate them correctly. Therefore, we decided to penalize up to 10 extra points for excess salt in food. Therefore, very salty meats and cheeses will be punished.

Are other products that are very high in salt also affected?

Yes, all products such as broths, sauces or soups can be very salty. A typical example is soy sauce, as a result of which most preparations contain salt only in liquid form.

Today, bran bread ranks almost as well as bread made from white flour. However, the former contains more fiber and is absorbed more slowly by the body, two important characteristics for evaluating the nutritional quality of food. Was there a consensus to distinguish between these two types of food?

Yes. To do this, we have increased the threshold at which a product can earn favorable points for its fiber content. It will no longer be possible to achieve a Nutri-Score A or B with too little fiber.

Therefore, most white breads will pass at C. You wanted to give a better price to products rich in calcium and iron. Why?

Among the beneficial elements to consider in the food product, iron and calcium are interesting nutrients for a balanced diet. Nutri-Score takes iron and calcium into account through the “protein” component. According to this revision, products with more calcium (low-salt pressed cheeses) or iron (legumes, poultry) will do better.

Although a diet low in nuts has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, you didn’t want to include nuts on the list of fruits and vegetables, which could improve the product’s Nutri-Score. For what reasons?

Indeed, nuts no longer appear in the ingredients included in the “fruits and vegetables” component of the Nutri-Score, they have changed product categories, as the Nutri-Score calculation for these products will be after fat. This makes it easier to distinguish between unseasoned nuts (which generally rank better) and seasoned nuts (nut butters, crackers, sugar-coated nuts, salted cashews), which are punished more.

“Coconut oil, which is very rich in saturated fatty acids, will maintain your Nutri-Score E”

What was the scientific committee’s attitude to red meat and processed meats, foods that have become the subject of scientific debate and intense lobbying (controversy has been fierce in recent years)?

The debate is over: ANSES (National Agency for Food, Environment and Occupational Health) recommends limiting meat consumption to 500g per week. In relation to Nutri-Score, red meat cannot claim more than 2 points in the protein component. Poultry will be kept in the total calculation. Logically, a chicken cutlet will rank higher than a beef rib. Some very lean meats will always be graded A for saturated fat, while others will be graded B to D.

Regarding fats, is the algorithm able to distinguish between unsaturated fats, which are better for your health, such as olive oil, and saturated fats, such as butter, which should be consumed in moderation?

Yes. Olive oil contains relatively little saturated fat; thus, the algorithm will assign several negative points to it. In addition, it comes from a fruit that is included in the “fruits and vegetables” component: the olive, which allows it to get a bonus. Butter loses on both criteria. As for coconut oil, which is very rich in saturated fatty acids, it will maintain a Nutri-Score E.

How the Nutri-Score will be calculated in 2023, comments from Sciences et Avenir.  Credit: Infographie Sciences et Avenir/ Horia Bahri, from the Nutri-Score blog
Credit Horia Bahri/ Sciences et Avenir, from the Nutri-Score blog.

When can consumers expect these new rules to apply?

The Nutri-Score algorithm formula was included in the decree authorizing its adoption. Any change in the formula requires the publication of a new decree. But France has to get approval from the European Commission under the rules on food products. Optimistically, the decree could be published sometime in 2023.

What does the scientific committee use to decide on the evolution of the algorithm? Indeed, some nutritional recommendations lack consensus in the scientific community.

In France, it was the work of ANSES and the High Council of Public Health (HCSP) that led to the recommendations after a very extensive review of the scientific literature. The other six European countries involved in the development of the algorithm (Germany, Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland) reach more or less the same conclusions in terms of nutritional advice and follow a similar process of analysis of the scientific literature.

There is quite a bit of music being heard these days accusing Nutri-Score of promoting ultra-processed products. Grated cheeses or ultra-processed products added to improve potato starch will get the letter A?

Food processing and nutritional composition of products are two complementary dimensions of food production and both have independent effects on health. But today we don’t know how to consider these two dimensions in one algorithm. As for cheeses, the fat and salt content of these products remains important for health. Cheeses with less salt will be preferred in the algorithm.

What about ultra-processed foods that get the letter A, like tomato paste or Chocapic cereal?

We observe these changes. 10 years ago, when Nutri-Score was “born,” there were no Class C snack cookies, other than fiber-rich breakfast cookies. Today, we see a range of nutritionally enhanced products on supermarket shelves that are doing well. Thanks to the new algorithm, these new formulas will be taken into account and corrected. Products with low fiber or protein content (such as prepared foods) will no longer be ranked.

“Ultra-processed products can be labeled for consumers”

But what about cereals that are widely used by children for breakfast?

Again, only products with a low sugar content and high fiber content will get a very good rating.

You don’t fear that manufacturers will adapt their products to get a better rating (adding dyes, grains and starchy foods, etc.) after fiercely fighting the Nutri-Score.

We are moving forward so that ultra-processed products are taken into account in public policy. They can be signaled to consumers, for example with a black border around the Nutri-Score logo.

And what will be your next projects?

Check out the Nutri-Score of drinks! Whether it’s fizzy drinks or most fruit juices, they’re mostly very sweet. And here the problem is above all implementation, because we are faced with companies like Coca-Cola or PepsiCo that refuse to give the consumer the right information.

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