NutriScore, is a nutritional traffic light intended to help consumers make healthier buying decisions by providing information on nutritional quality at a glance. It does this by using a algorithm that gives a lower (healthier) score for protein, fibre, fruit, nuts and vegetables and a higher (less healthy) score for kilocalories, saturated fat, total sugars and salt. Based on this score, the product is given a letter with the corresponding colour code, from the healthiest which would be green (letter A) to the least healthful which would be indicated by the colour red (letter E).
But not everything is perfect in the world of the colourful algorithm. Since its birth in France (2017), it has been the subject of numerous criticisms arguing that the NutriScore not only fails to meet the objectives for which it was created but is even misleading for consumers. As expected, we are facing a divided Europe. On the one hand, the governments of France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany have adopted the Nutriscore label on a voluntary basis. However, Italy considers that such labelling poses a risk to products “made in Italy” and to the Mediterranean diet, and has even presented to the Commission an alternative to NutriScore called NutrInform (which has also been widely criticised). Major food multinationals such as Nestlé, Kellogg’s and Danone have already implemented NutriScore in their own brand lines and some of the largest retail chains such as Carrefour, Erosky, Aldi and Lidl have also included NutriScore in their own brand products.
The pro-NutriScore group argues that it is an easily interpreted tool that can encourage healthy food choices and motivate industry to reformulate its products. By contrast, another group sees the NutriScore as an unfair system, which may discriminate against certain categories of food, as it does not include comprehensive nutrient information and is not based on the reference intakes of the average consumer, leading to an unbalanced diet.
The NutriScore also fails to convince the European Commission. In fact, in its Farm to Fork strategy published in March 2020, the Commission faces the challenge of implementing a single mandatory labelling system across the EU, by the last quarter of 2022, but has so far not committed itself to the NutriScore. In fact, it has proposed to launch an impact study on the different types of front of pack labelling.
Despite all this variety of opinions, today the NutriScore is one of the most widely accepted front labels in Europe and the one chosen by Spain for implementation during the first quarter of 2021.
In this situation we must not forget that the most important thing is to inform (not influence) the consumer. This situation is reminding me of what happened with Regulation 1924/2006 whose initial objective was also very worthy, as it was published to protect consumers on nutrition and health claims on food. That was a Regulation under strong pressure from the food industry which did not take the consumer into account. In fact, to this day, consumers are still not aware of the difference between a “fat-free”, “low-fat” or “reduced-fat” product, to name just one example. It was a regulation made “for” and “by” the food industry and which in my opinion has not guaranteed consumer protection either. At the very least, the NutriScore would expose a regulation that is allowing a fried roll filled with vitamin D enriched cream to claim that it “contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system”. However, the NutriScore is also being used as a marketing tool by the food industry, and the algorithm has even been modified to improve the rating of certain products.
One of the main criticisms of NutriScore is that products with low nutritional value may give the impression of being healthy after reformulation. In my opinion, the NutriScore would actually be continuing a situation that Regulation 1924/2006 has not been able to resolve. We should focus on health policies by reformulating those products with too much salt, saturated fat and sugar so that consumers can actually make healthier choices.
We already know that NutriScore is not perfect, in fact no labelling system will ever be perfect in isolation. In parallel, complementary nutrition information systems will need to be put in place. Nutrition education will of course be essential for any labelling system to be effective, but here the food industry really needs to lose its fear of being more transparent. Marketing departments must understand that including “sodium palmitate” (Latin name) or “elaeis guineensis” (name of the plant) as an ingredient instead of “palm oil” is not transparent and can confuse even a PhD in nutrition.
In the food area of CARTIF during 2021 we are preparing business initiatives related to the improvement of the nutritional profile of certain foods and actions aimed at improving nutritional labelling so that consumers can make more informed choices.
From the creators of “What doesn´t kill you makes you fatter or is a sin” and “You don´t know what to eat” appears “Take care if you like overcooking!” and “Nightmare in the kitchen, there is acrylamide in your food“.
For years it was known that acrylamide was a toxic substance present in tobacco smoke and in industrial processes such as paper manufacturing, metal extraction, textile industry, colorants and other processes such as cosmetic additives or in water treatment. What nobody could imagine was that it also appears naturally when we are cooking foods such as potato crisps, French fries, biscuits and coffee.
It was first detected in foods in 2002 in Sweden when this chemical was found in starchy foods. According to experts, acrylamide is converted in the body into a chemical compound called glycidamide, which causes mutations and DNA damage that could initiate a cancerous process. The main chemical process that causes this is known as the Maillard Reaction; between sugars and amino acids (mainly one called asparagine) that are naturally present in many foods. It is the same reaction that ‘browns’ food (consequence of some pigments called melanoidins) and affects its taste and smell (due to substances such as furans). For this reason, the color could be a very practical guide for detecting acrylamide in foods.
Following, there is a summary of the evolution of the acrylamide topic according to the opinion of experts and different authorities in food safety:
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): classifies it as probable carcinogens in humans (group 2A). This designation is applied when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans as well as sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. For this reason, the authorities recommend that exposure to acrylamide should be as minimal as possible.
World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO/WHO): admits that there are many doubts about the mechanism of action of acrylamide and also about the estimation of the maximum recommended intakes or how the data obtained in animals have been extrapolated to humans. They insist especially on the need for more research on topics such as the associated risks in humans, quantification of acrylamide in diets other than European ones and identify the speed of the human body to neutralize acrylamide. In 2009 FAO/WHO published a code of practice for the reduction of acrylamide in food. A large amount of information on acrylamide is located on the FAO/WHO portal ‘Acrylamide Information Network’.
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA): it is still not clear whether the consumption of this component has an effect on the risk of developing cancer in humans. In the following link you can find all the information published by the EFSA related to acrylamide since 2002. Industry (Food and Drink Europe) has developed a document called ‘toolbox’ containing measures that can be applied by the different sectors of food industry to bring its levels down.
European Commission: in November 20th, 2017 the Reglament (UE) 2017/2158 is published containing mitigation measures and benchmark levels for the reduction of the presence of acrylamide in food. The Regulation establishes mandatory mitigation measures for food companies (industry, catering and restoration). At the moment, there are only levels of reference but everything indicates that in the future they will become maximum limits.
Spanish Agency of consumption, food security and nutrition (AECOSAN): is in full campaign of information to diminish the exhibition of acrylamide among consumers and to sensitize the population on the health risks of it. The motto of the campaign: ‘Choose dorado, choose health’. In the following video and link you can find simple recommendations to control the formation of acrylamide when cooking at home.
Undoubtedly, the issue of acrylamide will continue to give much to talk about over the next few years. In CARTIF we have just launched the COLOR Project: “Acrylamide reduction in processed foods” approved in the FEDER INTERCONECTA 2018 call. In this Project, the companies GALLETAS GULLÓN, CYL IBERSNACKS and COOPERATIVA AGRÍCOLA SANTA MARTA will join efforts to achieve the following objectives:
To reduce acrylamide in biscuit products and chips.
To obtain olive oils capable of counteracting the formation of acrylamide in processed foods.
To develop an indirect analytical method to quantify acrylamide more quickly, easily and economically than conventional analytical methods by measuring the COLOR of foods. In the Project we have the collaboration of the Institute of Science and Technology of Food and Nutrition (ICTAN-CSIC) and the Research Group, Food Quality and Microbiology (GRUPO CAMIALI) of the University of Extremadura.
We start the new year fulfilling the promise of writing a second part of the post “Without sugar, please” of possible alternatives to elaborate food without sucrose or “table sugar”, the most commonly used sweetener in the industrialized world.
So this year, my letter to Three Wise Men was:
Dear Three Wise Men:
As you know, the search for alternatives to sucrose is a topic of general interest for the food industry, consumers, researchers, health professionals, etc.
So this year, in which I’ve endeavored to find the way to develop healthier foods, I would like to ask you a very special sweetener. First of all, I would like that this sweetener could be at least as sweet as sucrose, colorless, odorless, noncariogenic and, of course, low-calorie. I would like the taste could clean and could not provide foreign flavors. I would like it could be water soluble and stable in both acidic and basic conditions and over a wide range of temperatures. Thinking in industry, it would be ideal that it could be processed in a similar way to the sucrose so that they could continue to use the same equipment. I would love that I could include it in any food and does not harm the shelf life of the final product.
As you are wise and very nice, I also want to be price competitive in relation to sucrose and easy to produce, store and transport. And to conclude, please the most important thing, is that it is SAFE for the entire population, I mean that it is not toxic and is metabolized without causing any unwanted alteration.
Thank you very much and if you fulfill what I ask you I promise that next year we will have the healthiest sweet coal in the world!
So, I sent my letter really excited and January 6 th, my children who always get up 8 o´clock in the morning, came to wake me up screaming: “Mummyyy!, the Three Wise Men have left a letter for you!” They were right, Wise Men had bothered to reply to my letter and this is what they said:
We have received your letter and we are very proud that from Cartif, you continue betting on a healthier diet but we have to tell you that, although we are magicians, we do not perform miracles. We are sorry to inform you that sweetener you describe in your letter does not exist. We can only advise you to use sweeteners you have intelligently, combine them between themselves to achieve a synergistic effect and thus use less amounts. If you are looking for low-calorie sweetener than sucrose, you can use intensive sweeteners and polyols although we know than there are controversies about their effects on health, which can give strange flavors and are labeled as additives.
We have received news of the “Stevia-boom” that is living in the food industry. If you have time, we’d like you to tell that although stevia (E-960) is plant-derived this does not mean that it is natural. Remember that all or nothing is poison and that the difference is in the dose.
Keep in mind that you can also use soluble fibers such as inulin and polydextrose although they provide less sweetness, ferment the intestinal microbiota acting as prebiotics, provide few calories and are not labeled as additives.
And before saying goodbye, as we all know that it has not won the lottery, still encouraging enterprises to develop products with a more balanced nutritional profile.
Bad news for those people who love sweet food. In the Guideline: sugars intake for adults and children (2015), WHO recommends a reduced intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake. A few 6 teaspoons of coffee/day (25 g), including sugar that provide food. And this also aims to for those who are thinking: “what are you telling me? I add honey”. Ok, but although it is very “natural”, the bitter reality is that more 80% of honey are also sugars.
The recommendation is further supported by evidence showing higher rates of dental caries when the intake of free sugars is above 10 % of total energy. This evidence shows those adults that increasing the amount of sugars in the diet is associated with a comparable weight increase. In addition, children who consume much more sugar are more likely to be overweight or obese than children with a low intake of sugar-sweetened.
United Kingdom announced that they were going to apply taxes to sugars sweetened beverages, which is an important topic of argument in Europe. In fact, Catalonia has taken the initiative, announcing it expected to establish the first regional assessment to sugars sweetened beverages during the next year. The rate will vary from them 8 cts/L, for drinks that contain 5 to 8 grams by 100 ml, and of 12 cts/L for which overcome it.
It is suggested that priority is given to food categories that commonly represent major sources of added sugars in Member States’ diets, that have a high public health impact or that are recommended to be consumed. According to these criteria, the relevant food categories where efforts should be focused on are:
In CARTIF, we know that reducing content of sugars in food is not easy because aside from sweetness, sugars also influence many product properties.
In bakery products, the role of sugar (sucrose) is very important because also influence many product properties such as the volume, texture and colour:
• Sugar increases gelatinization temperature of starch, so that air bubbles trapped lightening the texture. • It is a humectant (fixed water), this is important for conservation food e also affect its texture. • It works as a base for the fermentation of the yeast (for example when the bread is growing). • Sugar reduces freezing point, what is important to produce softer ice cream and to increase boiling point, fundamental for manufacturing of sweet. • Sugars are responsible of brown color development of many cooked food, through two processes: Maillard reaction and caramelization. • Sugars are important for the preservation of the food. High levels of sugar limit microbial growth and allow the food to last longer.
Now, we can already get an idea that reducing sugars is difficult from technological point of view and because changing its organoleptic characteristics. I will leave for a second part of this post how currently the products without sugars are developing.
I tell you a real situation: Some years ago, I was chatting with a friend, when she looked at me very serious and said: I am not be able to lose weight! My doctor says that vegetables fattens me and the worst thing is that I love it! In that moment, those words seemed so absurd that I stayed quiet. Today, almost 20 years later, I have understood that my friend (a clear visionary) was speaking about genomic nutrition o personalized nutrition.
As we know, in the studies of dietary intervention, the results are the average value of all individual who have participated in the study. But, what would we find out if the results would be analyzed individually? In some people, a change in dietwouldn´t feel any effect (hypo-responders), others would feel a medium effect (normo-responders) and others would feel an effect greater than expected (hyper-responders).
During the last decades, we have passed from believing that diet produces the same effect in all individuals to accept that changes in diet are partly caused by the inter-individual differences in the human genome.
And that is precisely what we have lived in projects about “health food” developed in CARTIF. If we look back, we have more than 20 years designing functional foods and even collaborating in intervention studies in humans with the objective of verifying its effectiveness.
The project CENIT HIGEA (2007-2010) was undoubtedly the most important in the design of food with beneficial effects on health. In this project we feel ourselves as Dr. Brand on “interstellar: we were missing variables to solve optimally our trials of intervention.” We had not contemplated that the response to food varies depending on the specific characteristics of each person!
In fact, in a trial of intervention realized in HIGEA, we got that the consumption of a bar enriched in Omega-3 only produced an improvement in the lipid profile and the inflammatory pattern in men but not in women who participated in the study.
With these antecedents, in the year 2014 we began to work in the Project PRIMICIA. As its name suggests, for the first time, we get ingredients and healthy food (cookies, juices, jams, and pasta) bearing in mind the genetic profile of the population. It is necessary to mention that although the advances in the knowledge and technologies developed about of the human genome have been spectacular during the last years, the nutritional genomic is still a recent discipline and there is some confusion.
The project PRIMICIA is just the beginning in the industrial development of effective foodto improve the health of people in a personalized way. I propose complete the famous phrase “You are what you eat” saying: “You are what you eat because this determines which genes are expressed” and as I also have the gene “mother”, I would add: “so be careful!”
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