It is important to consider several factors when interpreting the controversial Nutriscore food rating system. You can always choose the healthiest option in your supermarket to carry out a balanced and healthy diet with certain keys.
It is a system for classifying food products based on whether they are more or less healthy, so it is decisive as a decision tool when purchasing any processed food in a supermarket.
This controversy is also influenced by the formulation of the algorithm that determines which products are healthier than others. The food industry has participated directly in it, so there are conflicts of interest concerning its implementation. Therefore, it is important to know what its classification is based on and in which cases its application can be useful:
What is the NutriScore ranking based on?
NutriScore is a gradual system that aims to identify the nutritional quality of food products with a code similar to a traffic light with five colors and five letters (A / B / C / D / E), where A (green color) is considered a food “healthy” and E (red) a very unhealthy food.
- Green (A), very healthy
- Light green (B), healthy
- Yellow (C), neither good nor bad
- Orange (D), unhealthy
- Red (E), unhealthy
This classification is based on the percentage of calories, saturated fat, sugar, salt, fiber, and protein. The most debated question about this classification method is whether the information it offers is reliable.
The algorithm that decides to what degree each product is placed is determined from mathematical formulas that consider the proportion of nutrients in the specific food (amount of fiber, salt, saturated fats, sugars, calories, etc.).
However, these formulas are unknown to the consumer, so it is difficult to know if the product in hand is high or low in sugars, fats, etc. Therefore, your purchase decision will be based on the color code that gives relative but not objective information about the product’s healthiness. In this way, this system, in its beginnings, penalized extra virgin olive oil with the letter E due to its contribution to saturated fat (14%) while giving a B to a light cola soft drink by not adding fat, sugar, no salt.
Given this data, it is normal that there is a stir about its reliability since, as we well know, olive oil is considered a much healthier food than any light soft drink.
How to interpret and apply the NutriScore system?
One of the drawbacks of this labeling occurs when we want to compare products from different categories since, as we have seen with the example in the previous section, it is not a useful tool or created for this purpose.
Thus, it will not provide us with objective information if we hesitate between buying a dairy product or a product made with cereals, for example.
This system has been created to:
- Encourage the food industry to improve its products.
- See which foods are healthier within the same category (which yogurts are healthier than others, for example).
- Determine which food is healthiest by comparing different brands of that type of food.
For all those mentioned above, the message that must be transmitted to the general population is that this system is made to compare products of the same category with each other; that is, if we intend to buy cereals, it will give us a relative classification based on the same food group (considering cereals with category B more “healthy” than cereals with category E).
Corrections and conclusions
Due to the inconsistencies that this classification has presented, it has been considered that products that contain only one ingredient should be excluded from the NutriScore system, so said labeling would not be implemented in fresh foods or with a single ingredient such as oil, milk, eggs or honey for being inherently healthier than any other ultra-processed product.
Another of their mistakes is the approach based on nutritional reductionism (determining the healthiness of food only by its content in certain macronutrients) that can create a lot of confusion for the consumer.
In addition, it does not consider that there are categories of products that should be avoided due to their poor nutritional formulation and because they are harmful to our health per se, such as pastries, alcohol, or ultra-processed products in general. What would be useful would be a classification such as the one applied by the Pan American Health Organization with the Nova System. Products are classified according to their degree of processing. Thus, when choosing healthier foods, it is better to choose precisely those that do NOT need labeling. Therefore, they are not considered processed: fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and fish, fresh legumes, nuts, etc.
On the other hand, it is more than justified that reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods is key to improving the health of the population, so intuitive nutritional labeling that allows the consumer to detect whether a food is healthy or not together with the regulation of the advertising of ultra-processed foods and a policy that adjusts the prices of healthier foods (so that they are available to all social classes) would be three measures that would facilitate this process.
Finally, we must not forget that even containing certain errors in its formulation, a NutriScore system is a tool that, well applied, can have some utility, and this is shown by some studies that conclude that its participants improved by 9.3% the nutritional quality of the average shopping basket.
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