What Nutri-Score does – and what it doesn’t

Grab it or leave it on the shelf? Nutri-Score for food is designed to make the decision easier and offers help at a glance. However, the simple structure of the traffic light system is also a problem

Pickles with a dark green A, muesli with a yellow C and whipped cream with an orange D: in the last two years, shoppers have seen more and more products in supermarkets with the so-called Nutri-Score printed on them. The traffic light system provides information about the nutritional value of the food product at a glance.

This can be useful when shopping. However, many products still lack the score. In addition, experts doubt whether all users can use the system.

The Nutri-Score, from dark green A to red E, is a five-level traffic light. A fixed formula is used to calculate which category a product falls into. The same is true for most foods. Sugar, salt, saturated fat and high calories have negative effects. A high proportion of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fiber and protein, among other things, gives you plus points. Additives and flavorings are not taken into account. From 2020 in November the score can be printed on packaged food in Germany with legal certainty, but voluntarily.

The Nutri-Score is designed to make it easier for consumers to choose a product group, for example in the category of bread or milk drinks, explains Benedikt Merz of the Max Rubner Institute, Federal Institute for Nutrition and Food Research. So: I want to eat pizza today, which one should I choose? Or: I would like to buy dessert for dinner, which is a comparatively cheaper option. That’s the theory.

Who hits today? What's ahead?

Anyone who only buys products with a green Nutri-Score is not doing their health any favors

“The reality is that consumers often judge colors intuitively. Products labeled green are perceived as essentially harmless, while a red E is a stop signal,” says Merz, who also sits on the Nutri-Score scientific committee that sets the rules and created the traffic light system. “The main disadvantage of the Nutri-Score is that the system can be misunderstood due to its simple structure. According to Merz, a massive information campaign on how to use Nutri-Score correctly would be “very helpful”.

Armin Valet from the Hamburg Consumer Center also believes that the score needs to be explained. “People who only buy products with a green Nutri-Score label are far from doing their health any good. On the one hand, both variety and quantity play a role in a healthy diet, but the Nutri-Score does not reflect either. On the other hand, the traffic light system can only be found on packaged foods, but not on, for example, fresh fruits and vegetables, which are the cornerstone of a balanced diet.

“Nutri-Score does not absolve consumers of the responsibility to know basic nutritional recommendations,” says Valet. Sarah Hauser of the consumer organization Foodwatch takes a similar position. “Nutri-Score is not individual nutritional advice.”

Consumer advocates are calling for a Nutri-Score requirement

But by and large, consumer advocates support Nutri-Score and advocate for duty. “It’s easy to understand and helps you shop when you’re choosing between two similar products,” says Valet. Consumers can better assess the nutritional value of a product because the Nutri-Score takes into account important nutrients such as sugar, salt and saturated fat.

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