Time to jump on the Nutri-Score bandwagon?

An increasing number of European countries is actively recommending the use of front-of-pack nutrition label Nutri-Score on food products. Following France, where the idea for the 5-Colour label originated, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, and Switzerland are now following in its footsteps. The commonly used narrative posits that Nutri-Score easily communicates to consumers how healthy their choices are, and that they nudge consumers onto the path of healthier alimentation. Although not obligated to print a Nutri-Score onto their packaging, manufacturers will undoubtedly be affected by its increased popularity.

What should Nutri-Score mean to these companies, and where do the opportunities lie?

The logic behind Nutri-Score

Nutri-Score is a food labeling system assigning one of five colors to a product based on its nutritional value. This value is calculated by standardizing the level of nutrients in 100g of a product, either food or beverage. Based on this concentration, positive or negative points are allocated. Positive points are assigned for energy (kJ), sugar content (g), saturated fats (g) and sodium (mg). On the other hand, if a product contains fruit, vegetables, nuts, fibers, and proteins, points can be deducted. The resulting number ranges from -15 to +40, indicating the healthiest and unhealthiest foods respectively. The healthiest products get a dark green A, whereas the unhealthiest food get a dark red E.

Nutri-Score is not the only of its kind though. There are several nutrition labels, ranging from highly simplified to very specific. The keyhole symbol, for example, is a label on the simplistic side of the spectrum, solely indicating that the product has passed certain standards for fat, sugar, salt and fiber content. This label is commonly used in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. An alternative on the specific side of the spectrum is Nutrinform Battery, an Italian response to the Nutri-Score, in which several nutrient quantities (fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt) are separately highlighted with batteries to indicate the percentage of a suggested daily quantity the quantity represents. A third alternative is the traffic light, giving insight into several nutrient quantities like Nutrinform Battery, but instead of batteries giving them a green, orange, or red color to indicate their value in a healthy diet.

Nutri-Score’s effectiveness

Despite the – in most countries obligated – nutritious information found on the back of products, the call for more accessible labels has grown. The problem with back-of-pack information, is that customers rarely use it for decision-making. In supermarkets, where decision time is averaged at 35 seconds, nutritious information needs to be understandable and actionable. Studies centered around eye movements, indeed, have found that Nutri-Scores are detected by consumers far more than back-of-pack information.

Is this just not an insurmountable advantage of front-of-pack labeling though? Although extra attention is indeed caught by the front of packaging by default, research shows that even compared to other front-of-pack labels, Nutri-Score is easily noticed and well-understood by consumers. Possibly even more important, Nutri-Score performed best at generating an overall more nutritious shopping cart.

Is this then the next game changer in nudging toward nutritious alimentation? It is certainly on the road of becoming a widely accepted and recognized label. Apart from being backed by from governments throughout Europe, it has also gained support from the likes of WHO, the European Commission, and multinationals as Danone and Nestlé. Yet, there are also voices opposing the label, coming from for example Italy, Greece, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Cyprus and Latvia. They mainly oppose label’s disregard for the context in which the product is consumed. One of these issues brought forward is that foods should not be assessed outside of the consumed context, as Nutri-Score judges products based on 100g or 100mg quantities. They argue that some products will never be consumed in such quantities, such as olive oil, due to which even foods deemed ‘unhealthy’ can be part of a balanced diet. Another critique questions the congregated nature of the label, simplifying a bunch of nutrients into one score rather than assessing individual nutrient levels. Nutri-Score ambassadors have responded to the criticisms that the label should be used as a measure to compare products within the same food group, rather than across food groups. The criticisms seem to have not thrown Nutri-Score off its path so far, judging from the new backing of end-product manufacturers.

Timing of this wave of interest

The discussion on and scrutiny of nutrition labels is not surprising. Under the burden of rising levels of chronic diseases, nutrition is recognized as a major influential factor. Since back-of-pack information is barely used, public bodies have turned to front-of-pack labels as an opportunity to nudge consumers into choosing healthier nutrition. On top of this pushing strategy, consumers are also increasingly focused on a healthy lifestyle. Nutrition labels therefore fit well within the larger trends taking place among consumers.

As of yet, European legislation prevents those governments supporting Nutri-Score in obligating food manufacturers to print labels onto their packaging though. Instead, a country can recommend the use of the label on products. The Netherlands, for example, has chosen to introduce Nutri-Score as the only recognized food label for Dutch producers in the first half of 2022. Therefore, producers are not allowed to put any other labels on their products. Additionally, if a producer chooses to use the label on packaging on one of their products, they are obliged to do so on all of them.

This means manufacturers have a choice to make: are we jumping on the bandwagon, or not?

Spotting opportunities

So far, an increasing number of big food manufacturers are indeed doing so. Time to explore there reasons why these companies have been the first to commit to Nutri-Score.

The trend for nutrition labels is, as touched upon, rooted in a number of societal developments. These have not only sparked consumers’ call for nutrition labels, but also a demand for more nutritious products. Even without nutrition labels, companies benefit from heightened product innovation, if it leads to better nutritional value. Labels might therefore best be regarded as an extra push to align company strategies with societal developments. Nestlé for example posed that ‘Nutri-Score will motivate us and help track our progress’ on the road to their goal of having one of the healthiest options available in each of their product categories.

Being an early adopter of such labels can therefore ensure that innovation is demand-driven, giving a chance to outperform competitors by offering a relatively high nutritious value within product categories. Alternatively, by neglecting the introduction and popularity of Nutri-Score, chances are competitors will fulfill this role, risking a lagging behind in terms of product innovation and market share.

Lastly, due to its roots in health issues, a brand commitment to the use of Nutri-Score lays the foundation for a reputation as an honest, health-conscious brand with the consumer’s best interest at heart.

Conclusion

Whether seen as an opportunity or burden, the current outlook is that the use of nutrition labels, and specifically Nutri-Score, will be growing. Therefore, it might just be the time to jump on the bandwagon and realize that although food labels are only part of the multi-dimensional solution to unhealthy consumption patterns, it does represent a very important step. Healthier nutrition starts with a choice, made in a mere 35 seconds in the supermarket. Now, it’s up to companies in the food sector to facilitate consumers in making that choice.

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