Papers in English

Autopsy of a fake news on Twitter or how the designers of Nutri-Score are falsely accused of supporting a cheese tax instead of a tax on sugar sweetened beverages? Who’s behind it and why?

It all started on November 3, 2021, the date of the publication of an original article by Dutch scientists in the international peer-reviewed journal « Public Health Nutrition » (PHN), presenting the results of a study (a randomized controlled trial) testing the effects of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax and a nutrient profiling tax based on Nutri-Score on consumer food purchases in a virtual supermarket.

This is a serious scientific study performed by researchers from several Dutch universities and published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Using a virtual supermarket, the study assessed the impact of two food tax strategies on the food purchases of a group of Dutch consumers. A group was asked to do their shopping (for a week) in an online supermarket where a tax was implemented exclusively on sugar-sweetened beverages; and another group did their shopping in the same online supermarket but where a nutrient profiling tax based on the Nutri-Score tax was applied.
Results presented in the paper showed that the nutrient profiling tax was effective in decreasing sugar-sweetened beverage purchases as well as in increasing the overall healthiness of the total weekly food shopping basket and decreasing its energy content; in the case of the sugar-sweetened beverage taxation, effects were only observed on sugar-sweetened beverage purchases. The authors conclude that a nutrient profiling tax (based on the nutrient profile underlying Nutri-Score) targeting a wide range of foods and beverages with a lower nutritional quality seems appeared to have larger beneficial effects on consumer food purchases than a taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages alone

Researchers from our Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team EREN (Inserm/Inrae/Cnam, Sorbonne University Paris-Nord), ) – as scientists usually do when an article of interest is released –, posted two tweets on November 4 (in English and Spanish) to inform about the publication of this article, with the article’s URL adress of the publication, and relaying the main conclusions of the study, issued from the article itself. Factual tweets, purely informative and with no comments or proposals of any kind.   

While the tweets of EREN researchers were merely relaying the Dutch scientific article (in which our research team was absolutely not involved and for which our members were not even aware of this research work), and although the article itself does not even mention the issue of a specific tax for cheeses, the next day a tweet replies to ours (in 4 languages, French, Spanish, English and Dutch) saying that «the promoter of Nutri-Score recommends a tax on cheese». To illustrate his point, the author of the tweet relies on a table (partially reproduced) coming from the Dutch article describing in the Methods section the products which, in the study, were subject to a tax according to their nutritional profile, with a highlight on the cheese category.

In the original table, it is indeed true that cheeses are were mostly taxed in the model used by the authors of the article, but among many other foods that were also subject to that taxation. Overall in the publication, cheeses represented 19 of the 224 products that were subjected to a tax. It was indeed the aim of the study to test the impact of a tax not targeting a specific food, but on all products considered as having a less favourable nutritional profile. The study does not specifically focus on cheese and does not conclude or even mention a specific tax on cheese. Despite this, the author of the tweet draws as a peremptory conclusion that the designers of Nutri-Score recommend a cheese tax …

In fact, to understand this manipulation, it is useful to check who the author of the tweet conveying this fake news is: Stephan Peters. Reading his Twitter biography, we can see that Mr. Peters works for the Dutch Dairy Association and is the editor of their professional journal “Voeding Magazine”. He regularly posts negative tweets on Nutri-Score, especially questioning the scientific basis of Nutri-Score.

In another tweet on November 5, Stephan Peters goes further in misinformation, always pretending to rely on the article published by Dutch researchers, but this time states that “the people behind Nutri-Score now seem to want no sugar tax but a tax on products that score bad with the unvalidated Nutri-Score. Cheese tax instead of sugar tax”.

This quote is also, of course, totally absurd and untruthful. It is not related with any statement from EREN scientists, nor from the authors of the article who showed in their work the effectiveness of the tax on sugar-sweetened drinks on the sale of these beverages. But the extension of the tax in the trial to all foods with lower nutritional quality, allowed for a similar impact on the purchases of purchases sugar-sweetened beverages, but with more beneficial effects overall, impacting therefore other food purchases. Products taxed due to their unfavourable nutritional quality according to Nutri-Score include also sugary drinks and sugary products… So the remarks from Stephan Peters have absolutely nothing to do with the article and attribute to EREN scientists things that were never said….

And the Dutch dairy lobbyist unfortunately affirms in the same tweet that Nutri-Score is an unvalidated nutritional label ! And to support his assertion, he references a text accessible on Researchgate (a social network for researchers to encourage scientific dissemination of research results and discussions) that he himself wrote … In fact, this text is absolutely not an academic publication that meets the quality criteria of a scientific article. It is a text reflecting a personal and biased opinion, failing to cite a large number of published studies. Moreover, this text, which resembles a pamphlet, has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal  – unlike the fifty publications devoted to Nutri-Score validating its algorithm (on numerous cohorts including tens or hundreds of thousands of subjects followed by many years, in France, Spain and in 10 European countries) and demonstrating its effectiveness in improving the healthiness of food purchases (in particular studies carried out in real supermarkets, experimental stores and virtual supermarkets). The text by Stephan Peters is published in a non-scientific magazine, which is, in fact, the journal of the Dutch Dairy Association, where Mr. Peters himself serves as Editor-in-Chief. What value can be given to this kind of document from a lobbyist employed by the Dutch Dairy Association, an organization opposed to Nutri-Score, and who publishes his opinion in his own journal (of course without independent peer-review process as is done in a scientific review). This is far from what science is about… but Stephan Peters uses his « own text” published in “his journal” as a so-called demonstration of his defamatory information about Nutri-Score.

This fake news aimed at casting doubt on academic researchers and on Nutri-Score using social networks (especially on Twitter) was relayed by different organizations, such as the No-Nutri-Score Alliance (created by the lobbyist cabinet MUST and Parners, based in Brussels), Farm Europe, another lobby whose general secretary is Horacio Gonzales de Aleman former Director General of FIAB, the Federation of Spanish Food Industry, Competere (Italian lobby), etc. And these tweets are picked up and relayed by influencers, associations, and anti Nutri-Score lobbyist professionals who have not read the original article and spread out the false argument directly!

With this example, we can see how the lobbies are trying, using fanciful fake news, to discredit academic researchers and to torpedo Nutri-Score. In this case, they do not hesitate to falsely accuse them of wanting to protect sugary drinks from a tax and instead to target cheeses with a tax… They are trying to take advantage of the current context where cheese producers (and the major agri-food companies that are behind) are mobilizing to criticize the positioning of their products by Nutri-Score (related in fact to their high salt and saturated fatty acids content and their high energy density). Sending false messages and casting doubt on science and scientists are basic and well-known strategies of the lobbies…

Serge Hercberg, Pilar Galan, Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot, Bernard Srour, Chantal Julia, Mathilde Touvier

Sorbonne Paris Nord University, Inserm U1153, Inrae U1125, Cnam, Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team (EREN), Epidemiology and Statistics Research Center – University of Paris (CRESS), Bobigny, Franc

Public Health Department, Paris-Seine-Saint-Denis University Hospitals (AP-HP), Bobigny, France