NutriScore algorithm update a ‘step in right direction’

7 Sep 2022

Campaigning organisation Foodwatch International is hailing the update to the NutriScore algorithm as a “step in the right direction” but says there is still space for further improvement.

The revision, made by The International Scientific Committee (SCC) of the Nutri-Score, addresses notable weaknesses of the traffic light label to now include better differentiation between healthy and less healthy foods.

“The #Nutriscore's algorithm update will lead to fewer green scores,” the citizen-based watchdog states on Twitter.

NutriScore algorithm update a ‘step in right direction’
© AdobeStock/MB.Photostock

“For the German market, this means no frozen pizza will get an A or B anymore. Ready-to-eat-meals, cereals and sweet bakery products are also assessed more strictly.”

Berlin-based Foodwatch’s main criticism centres on the algorithm’s approach to assessing sugar content in food which, although is stricter in the latest version, does not, “reflect the latest scientific consensus.”

“The reference value of 90 grams (g) is still clearly too high,” it says.

Regulation change required

Acknowledging the issue, the SCC stresses in its 134-page report that including free or added sugars instead of total sugars in the algorithm is “quite relevant from a scientific perspective but believes that a change in the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (FIC) regulation is firstly required.”

Current guidelines by FIC state a reference value for total sugars set at 90 g per adult per day, which is at odds with World Health Organization (WHO) advice that recommends a maximum of 10% of daily calorie intake in the form of free sugars – approximately 50g of sugar per day.

The SCC believes that FIC regulation recommends the only available internationally acknowledged reference value for total sugars.

“The Nutri-Score is based on the mandatory nutritional information on the back-of-pack, which - among other nutrients - only provides information on the content of total sugars,” foodwatch says.

“The Nutri-Score in its current version is therefore not able to differentiate between free, added or naturally occurring sugars in its algorithm.”

What is Nutri-Score?

Nutri-Score grades food from -15 for the ‘healthiest’ products to +40 for those that are ‘less healthy’.

According to the score achieved, the food is assigned a letter with a corresponding colour from dark green (A – the healthiest) to dark red (F – the unhealthiest).

In its report the Scientific Committee, which led the changes to Nutri-Score, states that while the algorithm generally works well, it still needs changes to better differentiate between favourable and less favourable foods.

Changes implemented includes a stricter assessment of foods high in sugar and salt and a better approach to classifying (fatty) fish without added nutrients (like oil or salt).

“The proposed changes, based on rigorous scientific analyses and tests carried out on various national databases, will improve the efficiency of the Nutri-Score to rank foods according to public health recommendations, and therefore guide consumers to healthier food choices,” says Serge Hercberg, Nutrition Professor at the Université of Sorbonne Paris Nord’s Faculty of Medicine.

© AdobeStock/Robert Kneschke© AdobeStock/Robert Kneschke

NutriScore Steering Committee validation: ‘Good news for consumers & public health’

“This very important scientific report was validated by the NutriScore Steering Committee composed of representatives of the public authorities of France, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland,” Hercberg adds, whose work formed the basis of Santé Publique France’s Nutri-Score.

“Thus, the remarkable work done by the Scientific Committee will improve in a near future the performance of NutriScore! This is very good news for consumers and public health!”

Also, up for revision is how the algorithm classifies vegetable oils. Those oils with low levels of saturated fatty acids (rapeseed, walnut, oleic sunflower oil) can reach the B classification, as does olive oil. Sunflower oil moves to the C category.

Nuts and seeds without added salt or sugar, are now classified in A or B, while salted and/or sweetened versions are on average in C or even D.

Also revised is the classification of whole grain products that are (naturally) rich in fibre and processed/refined foods with relatively little fibre (whole grain vs white bread).

The SCC intends to revise the ‘Beverages' and 'Fruit, Vegetables and Nuts' categories planned for the end of 2022 and 2023, respectively.

Nutri-Score in Europe: Will it become mandatory?

While Nutri-Score is already the designated label for six EU-member states and Switzerland (BE, DE, ES, FR, LU, NL + CH), the system is not mandatory.

The European Commission intends to publish a proposal for a European nutrition label by the end of 2022 in which the Nutri-Score is a strong contender as the nutrition label of choice for all EU countries.

The system does have its critics within the region with Italy’s Competition Authority, AGCM, announcing earlier this month that Nutri-Score could not be used in the country without a warning to consumers.

The Authority recognises that NutriScore could mislead consumers on food choices through its classification of foods that the AGCM says introduces a "bias in the judgement that does not incentivise the consumer to make an adequate assessment to follow a diet useful for satisfying the daily intake of nutrients.”

The move forced French multinational retail corporation Carrefour and other distributors using the French nutrition label to withdraw Nutri-Score labelling on its products sold in Italy.

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