The EU’s obesity epidemic – which affects 10-30% of all European adults – will take centre stage at the European Obesity Policy Conference this week, in conjunction with World Obesity Day. The forum will spotlight a disease whose medical consequences are as expensive as they are tragic: from cardiovascular disease to Type 2 diabetes and multiple forms of cancer, obesity is a major contributor to a number of other non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The obesity crisis has garnered even more attention in the past year, as living with obesity are twice as likely to be hospitalised for Covid-19.
This helps explain why the European Commission has its sights trained on the obesity pandemic beyond just primary prevention, as indicated by the inaugural 2020 Foresight Report which singles out obesity as one of two priority NCDs (alongside cancer). In line with that focus, one major public health policy on the Commission’s plate is the implementation of mandatory front-of-pack nutritional labelling (FOPNL) as outlined in its 2020 Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy. Front-of-pack labels are seen as a means to complement the dry, technical nutritional information currently found on the reverse of all food products.
As such, FOPNL are supposed to facilitate healthy consumer choices, while an instantly visible label is also meant to prevent manufacturers from camouflaging the unwholesome compositions of their products. The potential of such schemes to reduce obesity has been studied by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which found that “when nutrition labelling is readily noticeable, understandable and compelling, it has the potential to stimulate consumers to make informed healthier food choices”.
But as the 2022 F2F deadline draws nearer, the question of which scheme the EU should adopt bloc-wide has polarised public opinion – perhaps nowhere more so than in Spain, where the government’s decision to endorse France’s FOPNL candidate, Nutri-Score, has sparked a major and growing outcry among producers and consumers of the country’s cherished traditional foods.
Nutri-Score: French candidate under fire
Despite widespread agreement that front-of-pack labels hold promise as a tool for tackling Europe’s obesity problem, reaching an EU-wide consensus about which label is best suited for use across the continent is proving deeply problematic. The most intense controversy centres on Nutri-Score, which critics allege discriminates against traditional European food products such as olive oil, which has been tied to reductions in obesity.
Nutri-Score uses an across-the-board algorithm to assign a colour, from green to red, and a letter, from A to E, to a given food product. The French FOPNL scheme, which has the official backing of the French government, has also been endorsed by a coalition of EU countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Spain. That grouping has recently announced the inauguration of a steering committee, which will encourage other EU member states to adopt the system.
The aim of Nutri-Score is not only to steer customers away from foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, but also to encourage manufacturers to reformulate their products in order to obtain a higher score. The results of that algorithm have led to widespread criticism of Nutri-Score by producers and nutritionists alike. While, on the surface, reformulating products to make them healthier seems like a good idea, advocates for traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet argue Nutri-Score assigns green lights to ultra-processed foods formulated to have a higher rating without necessarily meeting consumer’s nutritional needs, all while ascribing negative grades to all-natural, protected-origin European products such as olive oil, cheeses, and cured meats such as Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamón iberico.
Spanish agricultural sector endorses an Italian alternative
In order to head off the backlash, the Spanish government has already agreed to make tweaks to the system before rolling out Nutri-Score, specifically promising that olive oil, which the French FOPNL system assigns a yellow C grade, would be exempted from the label. Despite its many health benefits, olive oil’s mediocre score derives from its high fat content per 100ml, without consideration for actual serving sizes. Spanish olive oil producers fear Nutri-Score’s C for their flagship product – the same grade assigned to rapeseed and walnut oil, but also to Diet Coke or tomato ketchup – casts doubt on its health properties and appears to advocate limited consumption. Never mind that in Spain and Italy, where up to nine in ten families use olive oil at least once a day, life expectancy is among the highest in the world.
Many other Spanish agricultural sectors (and their customers) are now speaking out about Nutri-Score’s threat to their products, reacting with confusion and anger to the Spanish government’s support for the scheme. Iberian pig farmers and jamón producers have joined the chorus asking for a review of Nutri-score and an exception for their industry, given the fat and salt contained in Spain’s beloved jamón earns it a red D or even E grade, without consideration for its high levels of protein, minerals (potassium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc) and vitamins including B12, which specifically stimulates the body’s metabolism. Just this week, Spanish cheese manufacturers were the latest group to clamour for an exception of their own, given the negative grades Nutri-Score promises to assign to their products.
As the number of likely exceptions for traditional Spanish foodstuffs grows, many producers ask why Madrid would not opt instead for a system which works across the board. Italy’s Nutrinform Battery, for example, is designed to allow consumers to decide on the healthiness of a product based on its nutritional content compared to recommended daily nutritional intake, with the argument that its purely informative system can be used on all products without requiring exceptions. The Nutrinform Battery has already convinced Origen España, which represents over 200,000 protected-origin Spanish producers and which endorses the Italian system as “more in line with reality”.
While front-of-pack nutrition labels can be a powerful instrument for fighting obesity, Spain’s Nutri-Score crisis demonstrates the challenges of adapting a universal FOPNL to traditional European diets. As the debate continues to play out, the Commission will be tasked with finding a solution that encompasses the diverse dietary traditions and requirements of an entire continent.
Photo by Michal85 (Pixabay)
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