Nutri-Score – everything you need to know

Nutri-Score is a front-of-package (FOP) nutrition label used in France, Germany, Spain and four other European countries. The label is supported by several multinational food companies and large retail chains. It is backed by science and endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). So when the European Commission started looking for an EU-wide FOP nutrition label, many thought the race was already over. But European cooperation is not that simple. In this article, we tell you (almost) everything you need to know about Nutri-Score.

5 December 2022 •

The European Commission has long sought an EU-wide front-of-pack­age label to help con­sumers find health­i­er food options. The hottest can­di­date is the Nutri-Score, which uses a rat­ing from A to E to indi­cate how healthy or non-healthy a prod­uct is in its cat­e­go­ry. So how does Nutri-Score work? Will it be intro­duced across the EU? What are the alter­na­tives? We take a look at all this and much more in this article.

What is Nutri-Score

Nutri-Score is a label that guides con­sumers to choose health­i­er foods. The label is placed on the front of food pack­ages so that con­sumers can quick­ly read it in stores. The label has a five-point scale with let­ters from A to E and colours from green to red. The nutri­tion­al val­ue of the food is shown on this scale by high­light­ing a letter/​colour combination.
Which letter/​colour com­bi­na­tion is high­light­ed is deter­mined by a scor­ing scale rang­ing from -15 to +40 for foods and -1 to 10 for bev­er­ages. The low­er the score, the bet­ter. The score deter­mines which colour and let­ter a prod­uct should be labelled with.

Nutri-Score for food Nutri-Score for beverages Nutri-Score labelling
-15 till -1 -1 Nutri-Score label A. Five colour fields from green, light green, yellow, orange to red with the letters A, B, C, D and E. The green colour field with the letter A is larger than the others.
0 till 2 0 till 1 Nutri-Score label B. Five colour fields from green, light green, yellow, orange to red with the letters A, B, C, D and E. The light green colour field with the letter B is larger than the others.
3 till 10 2 till 5 Nutri-Score label C. Five colour fields from green, light green, yellow, orange to red with the letters A, B, C, D and E. The yellow colour field with the letter C is larger than the others.
11 till 18 6 till 9 Nutri-Score label D. Five colour fields from green, light green, yellow, orange to red with the letters A, B, C, D and E. The orange colour field with the letter D is larger than the others.
19 till 40 10 Nutri-Score label E. Five colour fields from green, light green, yellow, orange to red with the letters A, B, C, D and E. The red colour field with the letter E is larger than the others.

How Nutri-Score is calculated

Nutri-Score is cal­cu­lat­ed as the dif­fer­ence between a favourable com­po­nent P and an unfavourable com­po­nent N:

Nutri-Score = N - P

The unfavourable com­po­nent N is deter­mined by the amount of

  • calo­rie intake per hun­dred grams,
  • sug­ar content,
  • sat­u­rat­ed fat, and
  • salt con­tent.

The prod­uct is giv­en a rat­ing between 0 and 10 for each of these cat­e­gories. The greater the quan­ti­ty, the greater the val­ue. N is the sum of these val­ues. N can there­fore vary between 0 and 40.

The favourable com­po­nent P is deter­mined by the amount of

  • fruit, veg­eta­bles, legumes (includ­ing puls­es), oilseeds, rape­seed, wal­nut and olive oil (but not pota­toes, sweet pota­toes, taro, cas­sa­va and tapi­o­ca and oth­er starchy foods),
  • fibre, and
  • pro­tein.

The prod­uct is giv­en a rat­ing between 0 and 5 for each of these cat­e­gories. The high­er the amount, the high­er the val­ue. P is the sum of these val­ues. P can there­fore vary between 0 and 15.

If N ≥ 11, the pro­tein con­tent shall be exclud­ed from the cal­cu­la­tion of P if

  • P with­out pro­tein is less than 5 for food, or
  • the pro­tein con­tent is less than 10 % for beverages.

No rule without exception

There are spe­cif­ic rules for cer­tain products:

  • Cheese: The pro­tein con­tri­bu­tion shall not be excluded.
  • Mono-prod­ucts from oil, but­ter or fat: Nutri-Score increas­es from 0 to 10 with increas­ing pro­por­tion of sat­u­rat­ed fat­ty acids to total fat. If the ratio is less than 10, the Nutri-Score is 0 (good). If the ratio is 64 or more, the Nutri-Score is 10 (bad).
  • Drinks: Nutri-Score ranges from -1 to 10 depend­ing on ener­gy den­si­ty, sug­ar con­tent and per­cent­age of fruits, legumes, puls­es, nuts, rape, wal­nut and olive oil. Only water gets a Nutri-Score of -1 (best). For a drink to get 0 on the Nutri-Score (sec­ond best), it must have 0 kcal, 0 g of sug­ar and no more than 40 per cent fruits, legumes, puls­es, nuts, rape, wal­nut and olive oil. If 100 g or 100 ml of a drink con­tains more than 270 kJ or more than 13.5 g of sug­ar or more than 80 per cent fruits, legumes, puls­es, nuts, rape, wal­nut and olive oil, it scores 10 on the Nutri-Score (worst).

In addi­tion to the above, there are a lot of sub­tleties in the Nutri-Score cal­cu­la­tion, such as milk, drink­able yoghurt, flavoured drinks, choco­late milk drinks con­tain­ing more than 80 per cent milk, soups and gaz­pa­cho and plant-based drinks not being count­ed as drinks.

See full details in Nutri-Score Frequently Asked Questions from the French pub­lic health author­i­ty, Santé Publique France. They also pro­vide a spread­sheet in English for cal­cu­lat­ing Nutri-Score.

Sugar and the Nutri-Score

When cal­cu­lat­ing the Nutri-Score, all mono­sac­cha­rides (e.g. glu­cose and fruc­tose) and dis­ac­cha­rides (e.g. sucrose) are count­ed as sug­ar. This includes both added sug­ars and sug­ars that occur nat­u­ral­ly in ingredients.

Fruit juices and the like that are added to increase sweet­ness must not be includ­ed in the cal­cu­la­tion of the ben­e­fi­cial nutri­ent com­po­nent (P) of the Nutri-Score.

The Nutri-Score thus reveals attempts to por­tray a prod­uct as health­i­er than it is through claims such as ‘no added sug­ar’ or ‘less sweet’. It works in prac­tice. A study at the University of Göttingen, Germany, has shown this.

Nutri-Score counters misleading health claims

In October 2020, they con­duct­ed a sur­vey with 1,103 par­tic­i­pants. The sur­vey asked par­tic­i­pants about their per­cep­tions after see­ing pic­tures of pack­ag­ing for three hypo­thet­i­cal prod­ucts – instant cap­puc­ci­no, choco­late mues­li and an oat drink – with dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of sug­ar claims and Nutri-Score labels.

A sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of the sur­vey results showed that when there was no Nutri-Score, reduced sug­ar claims mis­led par­tic­i­pants into believ­ing that the hypo­thet­i­cal prod­ucts were health­i­er than they actu­al­ly were. However, the pres­ence of the Nutri-Score coun­ter­act­ed these effects and reduced the mis­per­cep­tion of how healthy less nutri­tious foods were.

Nutri-Score has an effect

Is Nutri-Score effec­tive beyond coun­ter­ing mis­lead­ing health claims about sugar?

To answer this ques­tion, researchers at the Toulouse School of Economics and else­where con­duct­ed a study that exam­ined the impact of four dif­fer­ent front-of-pack nutri­tion labels, includ­ing Nutri-Score, on the pur­chas­ing behav­iour of French people.

They put 1.9 mil­lion labels on 1,266 food prod­ucts in four cat­e­gories in 60 super­mar­kets. They then analysed the nutri­tion­al qual­i­ty of 1,668,301 pur­chas­es using a nutri­tion­al pro­fil­ing sys­tem devel­oped by the UK Food Standards Agency.

The result?

Nutri-Score was found to have the most sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive impact of all the labels stud­ied. Nutri-Score increased pur­chas­es of foods in the top third of nutri­tion­al cat­e­gories by 14 per cent. However, the over­all effect was not as sig­nif­i­cant as in com­pa­ra­ble lab­o­ra­to­ry stud­ies; Nutri-Score had almost no effect on pur­chas­es of foods of poor­er nutri­tion­al qual­i­ty or foods that were not labelled.

The French researchers con­clude their arti­cle with an inter­est­ing com­ment: ‘Given French atti­tudes towards food, it remains uncer­tain whether these results would apply in oth­er countries.’

Nutrition labelling in the EU

In the European Union (EU), nutri­tion labelling is reg­u­lat­ed by Regulation (EU) No 1169/​2011 on the pro­vi­sion of food infor­ma­tion to con­sumers. According to the reg­u­la­tion, mem­ber states may rec­om­mend (not impose) a nutri­tion label that food busi­ness may use in addi­tion to the manda­to­ry nutri­tion dec­la­ra­tion. This is pro­vid­ed that the label meets sev­en requirements:

  • The label must be based on sound and sci­en­tif­ic con­sumer research and not mis­lead the consumer.
  • The label must be devel­oped in con­sul­ta­tion with a wide range of stakeholders.
  • The label should help con­sumers under­stand the ener­gy and nutri­ent con­tent of the food.
  • The label should have sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that con­sumers under­stand it.
  • The label should be based on the EU rec­om­mend­ed dai­ly intakes for vit­a­mins and min­er­als or, where these do not exist, on gen­er­al­ly accept­ed sci­en­tif­ic advice on ener­gy or nutri­ent intakes.
  • Labelling should be objec­tive and non-discriminatory.
  • The labelling shall not impede the free move­ment of goods.

Several EU coun­tries use this option to rec­om­mend a front-of-pack­age nutri­tion label. France is one of them.

French initiative

In July 2013, the French Minister of Social Affairs and Health man­dat­ed a work­ing group to pro­pose mea­sures to help con­sumers make health­i­er food choic­es. In the autumn of 2013, the group, chaired by Professor Serge Hercberg of Sorbonne Paris North University, pro­posed 15 actions.

Action num­ber two of the pro­pos­al reads:

Set up a sin­gle nutri­tion infor­ma­tion sys­tem on the front of food packaging…

The pro­posed sys­tem, which had no name at the time, con­sists of two parts – scor­ing and labelling.

After the French bureau­crat­ic and polit­i­cal mills had fin­ished grind­ing, the actions were incor­po­rat­ed into the French Health Law of 2016. This includ­ed the intro­duc­tion of ‘a sin­gle sys­tem of nutri­tion­al infor­ma­tion on the front of food pack­ag­ing’. But details remained to be worked out before it could be launched.

Scoring scale

The scor­ing scale is based on a mod­el devel­oped in 2004-2005 to deter­mine which foods are not suit­able for mar­ket­ing to children.

It was OfCom – the UK’s broad­cast­ing reg­u­la­tor – that need­ed a sim­ple method to deter­mine whether food is ‘unhealthy’ and should not be mar­ket­ed to chil­dren. They asked the US Food Standards Agency for advice. They, in turn, com­mis­sioned the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University to devel­op a mod­el for nutri­ent pro­fil­ing. The result was The Nutrient Profiling Model.

It is this mod­el that Serge Hercberg and his team pro­pose to use, with some adjust­ments for French conditions.

The label

While it was easy to agree on the scor­ing scale, it was all the more chal­leng­ing to agree on the labelling. Already in the pro­pos­al to the French Minister of Social Affairs and Health, there was a sketch.

Early proposal for Nutri-Score labelling. A row of five circles filled with the colours green, yellow, orange, cerise and red, containing the letters A, B, C, D and E.
Picture of a pos­si­ble food labelling.

The work on the final graph­ic design of the label was lengthy, involved sev­er­al stake­hold­ers in a con­sul­ta­tion process and had many con­tro­ver­sies. After com­par­a­tive stud­ies of the per­cep­tion, under­stand­ing and use of dif­fer­ent front-of-pack labelling strate­gies, a label was final­ly agreed.

Final proposal for Nutri-Score labelling. A row of five colour fields in green, light green, yellow, orange and red, containing the letters A, B, C, D and E.
The final food labelling.

Nutri-Scores victory march through Europe

In March 2017, the French Minister of Health final­ly announced the new nutri­tion label – now called Nutri-Score.

Nutri-Score was quick­ly adopt­ed by oth­er European coun­tries. Today, it is rec­om­mend­ed by the author­i­ties in sev­en countries:

  • France (2017)
  • Spain (2018)
  • Belgium (2018)
  • Germany (2019)
  • The Netherlands (2019)
  • Switzerland (2019)
  • Luxembourg (2020)

Major food com­pa­nies, such as Nestlé, Danone and Fleury Michon, have also endorsed Nutri-Score.

And some of the world’s largest retail­ers, includ­ing Auchan, Carrefour and Ahold Delhaize, use Nutri-Score on their pri­vate-label products.

Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) gives Nutri-Score a thumbs up.

EU-wide FOP nutrition labelling

It is fair to say that Nutri-Score is on a tri­umphal pro­ces­sion through Europe. So when the European Commission in 2020 start­ed work on the intro­duc­tion of an EU-wide FOP nutri­tion label, you’d think it was already a done deal: Nutri-Score would become the EU-wide FOP nutri­tion label.

But no!

Italy, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and Romania have sev­er­al crit­i­cal com­ments. Among oth­er things, they demand that an EU-wide FOP nutri­tion labelling

  • should not pro­vide an over­all eval­u­a­tion of the food, but fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion on the indi­vid­ual nutri­ents con­tained in the product
  • con­sid­er food as part of the wider con­text of the dai­ly require­ments of a healthy diet, encour­age vari­ety, mod­er­a­tion and a cor­rect bal­ance between all food groups
  • take into account the speci­fici­ties of each Member State’s food cul­ture, typ­i­cal diet and nation­al nutri­tion­al guidelines
  • shall exclude prod­ucts with a pro­tect­ed des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin or geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tion, tra­di­tion­al spe­cial­i­ties and olive oil and oth­er sin­gle-ingre­di­ent products

New player at the last minute

To add insult to injury, in February 2022 the Italian gov­ern­ment launched a counter can­di­date to Nutri-Score: their own NutrInform Battery.

The Italian Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policy, Stefano Patuanelli, explains this by say­ing that Italy ‘can­not accept the trend towards a mod­el of homolo­ga­tion of agri-food products’.

Unlike Nutri-Score, NutrInform does not pro­vide guid­ance on how healthy or unhealthy a food prod­uct is. It is left to the con­sumer to decide. Instead, the amount of ener­gy, fat, sat­u­rat­ed fat, sug­ar and salt of a sin­gle por­tion is indi­cat­ed. Its share of the rec­om­mend­ed dai­ly intake is also giv­en as a per­cent­age. This is also illus­trat­ed by sym­bols show­ing bat­ter­ies with dif­fer­ent degrees of ‘charge’.

Example of labelling with NutrInform.
The NutrInform Battery pro­posed by Italy.

The future of Nutri-Score

The European Commission, which was due to make a pro­pos­al on EU-wide front-of-pack­age nutri­tion labelling in autumn 2022, now hopes to make a pro­pos­al in the first half of 2023.

Will they pro­pose Nutri-Score? No, prob­a­bly not.

‘Nutri-Score is one of the front-of-pack nutri­tion­al labelling sys­tems, and there are sev­er­al of them, but this does not mean that our sys­tem will be based on Nutri-Score’, says Roser Domenech Amado, act­ing head of One Health at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers.

‘The dif­fer­ent options which the Commission will put for­ward will build on already exist­ing for­mats already devel­oped in the European Union, such as Nutriscore, NutrInform Battery label, or the Keyhole’, says a spokesper­son for the European Commission.

Time will tell.

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