Italy bans Nutri-Score, claims labelling system could be construed as misleading

ITALY – The Nutri-Score, also known as the 5-Colour Nutrition label or 5-CNL, has received another blow in Europe with Italian authorities banning its in use on front-of-the-pack labelling.

In delivering its decision, the Italian Competition Authority (AGCM) said the system, which evaluates the nutritional value of foods and some beverages, could be construed as misleading if used without proper guidance to the consumer.

Following the ruling, companies wishing to continue using the nutri-score will have to accompany it with a warning detailing the methodology behind the system.

Consumers must be made aware when making food choices around health that the traffic-light system “is developed on the basis of an algorithm and on scientific evaluations not universally recognised and shared”, the AGCM said.

First introduced in France, and in voluntary use by food manufacturers and retailers in a number of European countries, the Nutri-Score system has for a long time been criticized for wrongfully designating some foods as unhealthy.  

Last October, France’s food minister Julien Denormandie said the methodology needs reassessing as it can lead to a classification of products “not necessarily in accordance with dietary habits”.

Italy has been an opponent of Nutri-Score because it is perceived as unfairly singling out certain products such as cheese, specialist hams and olive oil, ignoring some of the health benefits and frequency consumed.

“Statistical analysis of the survey results suggests that, when a Nutri-Score was not present, claims about reduced sugar did indeed mislead participants into believing that hypothetical products were healthier than they actually were,”

In November last year, the country’s competition authority launched its own review of the system as an alternative to the widely used Nutriscore.

The Authority said then: “Food products are divided into five categories, based on a score calculated using a complex algorithm that subtracts from the total value of the ‘unfavourable’ elements (energy, saturated fatty acids, simple sugars, sodium) that of the ‘favourable’ elements (percentage of fruit, vegetables, legumes and oil crops, fibres, proteins).”

The ensuing “judgements” without any note on methodology, the AGCM claimed, “are erroneously perceived as absolute assessments on the healthiness of a particular product, regardless of the overall needs of an individual (diet and lifestyle), the quantity and frequency of intake within a varied and balanced diet”.

Despite increased criticism, the Nutri score has found supporters in the science community with recent research indicating that the nutrition labelling system can help counter misleading sugar claims on groceries.

“Statistical analysis of the survey results suggests that, when a Nutri-Score was not present, claims about reduced sugar did indeed mislead participants into believing that hypothetical products were healthier than they actually were,” the researchers wrote.

“However, the presence of a Nutri-Score counteracted those effects, reducing misconceptions about the healthiness of less nutritional foods.”

On the basis of these findings, the researchers now call for restricted use of sugar content claims and similar labels, and mandatory use of the Nutri-Score by companies that do make such claims.

They also agitate for future research to evaluate the effects of the Nutri-Score for additional food categories and in the context of other advertising claims that could mislead consumers about food healthiness.

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