On September 10th 2022, the Joint Research Centre JRC (the European Commission’s science service carrying out research and providing independent scientific evidence and advices to support EU policy) published the results of four scientific analyses related to consumer information on foodstuffs.
Regarding front-of-pack nutrition labelling, the 230-page scientific report signed by 13 international JRC’s scientists analysed 173 scientific articles with a rigorous and extensively described methodology. https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC130125).
In this report emphasis was placed on: consumers’ attention and awareness of labels; determinants of consumer liking and acceptance of labels; understanding of labels and inferences regarding healthfulness made from labels; the extent to which labels inform purchase decisions; effects of labels on diet and health, and potential effects of front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FOPNL) on reformulation of food products. The main finding of the JRC analyses (apart from general considerations on nutritional labels) are:
1. consumers generally value FOPNL as a quick and easy way to acquire nutrition information when making purchase decisions,
2. the use of colour makes FOP nutrition labels more salient and stimulates attention paid to the labels,
3. less complex labels require less attention to be processed,
4. most of the reviewed studies suggest consumer preference for coloured FOP nutrition labels,
5. in general, consumers appear to prefer simple labels and colourful and directive FOPNL schemes,
6. simpler, evaluative, colour-coded labels (most of which use a trafficl light colour coding) are more easily understood than more complex, reductive, monochrome labels,
7. salient, consistent and simple reference quantities are preferred and consumers generally understand nutritional information better when it requires less “mental math” to process the information,
8. “High-in” warning labels seem to be more effective than other types of labels in discouraging purchase of less healthy products. Other FOPNL schemes (TL/MTL, HSR and Nutri-Score, and to a lesser extent RIs/GDA) seem to work better at improving overall healthiness of choices – i.e. combining both increase of the healthy and decrease of the unhealthy products- and not at effecting changes on the purchases of solely healthy or solely unhealthy products,
9. evidence from experimental studies suggests that colour-coded FOP schemes serve consumers better than their monochrome versions in encouraging overall healthier food purchases,
10. experimental studies suggest that the presence of FOP nutrition labels can have a positive impact on consumers’ dietary intake
11. evaluative FOP nutrition labels seem to be preferred by consumers with lower income.
Nutri-Score checks all the boxes in terms of positive characteristics regarding its usefulness and effectiveness, as it is classified by the JRC as a simple synthetic, color-coded, evaluative FOPNL based on a simple standard reference quantity (100g or 100ml).
The report of the JRC has led to a real outburst of Italian lobbies which, without any complex, accuse it of being misleading. Its « crime »: the scientific conclusions are favorable to the Nutri-Score… Against the convincing scientific arguments of the JRC, the only response of the Italian lobbies in the media is that « if the conclusions are favorable to Nutri-Score, it means that the report is misleading, ». The Italian lobbies use arguments defending their own economic interests and flatter culinary nationalism by trying to make believe (obviously wrongly) that Nutri-Score specifically penalizes products «Made in Italy» (in fact, cheeses and cold cuts are mainly classified D and E in the same way whether they are Italian, French, Spanish, German or Dutch…). These pseudo-arguments are, of course, absurd but they are in line with those conveyed by various political parties in Italy, notably the extreme right and populist parties for electoral reasons.
The JRC’s report, based on rigorous scientific analyses concluding on the interest of nutritional labels such as the Nutri-Score, is disturbing for the lobbies that oppose its deployment, This report should definitely serve as an input for a proposal to revise the EU rules on the information provided to consumers as part of the EU’s ‘Farm-to-Fork’ Strategy for the choice of a unique and mandatory label in Europe (expected at the end of 2022/beginning of 2023).
The scientific review carried out by the JRC (prepared at the request of the EC) is complementary to the public consultation it launched between December 2021 and March 2022 to gather the views of EU (and third country) citizens, as well as professional and non-professional stakeholders, on initiatives to revise EU legislation on consumer information on food, including front-of-pack nutritional labelling (https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/have-your-say/initiatives/12749-Food-labelling-revision-of-rules-on-information-provided-to-consumers/public-consultation_fr). This consultation showed that consumer associations, citizens, NGOs, research and educational structures and public authorities supported a label providing gradual information on overall nutritional quality of foods (which corresponds totally to the characteristics of the Nutri-Score). Not surprisingly, economic stakeholders preferred other options….
The scientific analyses published by the JRC (on the same line of the positions taken by numerous associations of European experts and medical structures) and the results of the EC public consultation should guide the EC’s decision on the choice of the future single mandatory nutrition label for Europe in the interest of European consumers and public health.