(NUTRI-) SCORE OR NOT SCORE Unraveling or embracing complexities?
The proof that contemporary society has been gradually dissociating from the complexities of life is right in front of us. The advancement of resource commodification, marketization of every dimension of existence, oversimplification, blind overexploitation, and the progressive diminishing of diversity have pushed the world towards the edge of a breakdown.
Food, which was once the result of a plurality of pieces perfectly balanced and in harmony with each other, now embodies the dysfunctions and leaks of a siloed system.
At the community level, the side effects of industrialization have spread unhealthy general patterns, like massive consumption of ultra-processed foods, minimal nutritional levels, sedentariness, monoculture, and waste. These are the causes that have made our Planet increasingly impoverished, stressed, and polluted.
We are now at the point that these complexities have come back to us and against us: because we pollute by eating but we also eat what we pollute. We standardize methods but we are losing our cultural and culinary heritage. With it, all the majesty, traditional knowledge, local crops, and endemic forms of biodiversity have been fading, those that ensure precious ecosystem services.
Scoring and harmonizing nutritional values: the battle of David and Goliath
Malnutrition, in all three dimensions (undernutrition, overnutrition, and inadequate nutrition), is now considered amongst the major causes of death and illness worldwide. This is confirmed in the data on diabetes alone: 537 million adults are living with diabetes, with 6.7 million deaths just in 2021. This is also confirmed in the “obesity epidemic” that has violently affected Europe: +161% of obese people in the EU compared with 1975.
Leading consumers back towards better food choices is therefore not only an international political priority but also an urgent personal, social, and environmental need.
For this reason, the EU campaign towards better nutrition information that started in the 1980s has rocketed since the beginning of the millennium.
Defining a strategy on the nutrition information system aims to facilitate “consumer understanding of the contribution or importance of the food to the energy and nutrient content of a diet,” reported the **EU Commission, even though several challenges have been faced when the Commission was asked to set the “nutrient profiles” criteria (meaning the thresholds of fat, salt, and sugars to identify a healthy diet) to be applied homogeneously across the whole region.
It is within this framework that the EU States have started to autonomously design nutrient profile models and front-pack nutritional labels. The famous Nutri-Score, developed by France in 2017 and based on the UK Food Standards Agency, both leads consumers towards healthier food choices and incentivizes producers to innovate their products towards healthier compositions.
Conceived as an experimental and voluntary method, the French Nutri-Score has scored traditional foods at the basis of the French Diet, by dividing food into five macro-categories.
The result is that each food is ranked according to its nutritional quality from A (the best) to E (the worst) applying a specific algorithm. To make it more understandable to consumers, the traffic light method has been selected by the French Government as the most intuitive communication method.
However, this is a system that has sparked opposition from other EU states: sectoral pieces of information, disconnection from the agri-food ecosystem, isolation of nutrients from the amount of food actually consumed and the territorial and cultural characteristics are all aspects considered to lead consumers to incorrect information.
The French Nutri-Score is not the sole nutrient front of the package label.
Globally, around 40 countries have been introducing types of nutritional labeling schemes. There are numerical labels and color-scored labels, positive logos (such as that introduced by the Swedish National Food Agency in the late 1980s) and warning labels, mandatory and voluntary labeling, labels to be conceived as efficient substitutes of public health and labels designed to be complementary.
Within this context, the intention of harmonizing **the EU Front of Pack Labeling in a mandatory way before the end of 2022, as part of the Farm to Fork EU Strategy,** is the real challenge for the EU Policy.
The global wellness equation: nutrition = people + planet + prosperity
It is easy to comprehend the ratio behind the need for labeling homogenization: with food having overcome national borders, EU consumers should be in the position of using the same tool for comparing different foods.
And whether the issue of placing informative labels in front packages rather than behind is now well established, the same cannot be said on the aspects of what that labeling shall include or take into account.
Can our well-being be limited to the sum of energy, fat, sugars, proteins?
The reality is that our food choices (and therefore nutrition) are influenced by a plurality of factors: price, accessibility of food and the way food is displayed in stores, environmental factors, social and cultural dimensions, psychological mechanisms.
The same science today no longer studies characteristics in isolation, but rather the relationships among them. Just as single atoms within human bodies cannot exist and survive in isolation, the same principle should be applied to every aspect of life, nutrition and well-being included.
Food instantly attracts people for its basic function: nurturing bodies and ensuring physical and mental health (at the individual level) and strengthening cooperation between individuals (at the community level).
Directing consumers towards a healthy diet is something wider than scoring nutrients within a single food. In this direction, FAO has clearly stressed that “no single food, except breast-milk, provides all the nutrients required. The best way, therefore, to ensure the body gets all the necessary nutrients is to eat a variety of foods.”
Food combinations, associations, and quantities may accelerate or prevent diseases, both in the body and in the mind, as recent studies have been investigating in the “microbiota–gut-brain axis.”
This also explains why the Nutri-Score and all front-of-pack nutrition labels are not and cannot be considered as substitutes — rather complementary aspects — for general public health recommendations.
Equally, people’s health and well-being are inevitably linked to the peculiar culture and territory, which not only sustains food identity but also specific nutritional needs. It comes as no surprise then that people living in colder environments rely on forms of nutrition that are massively different from those of people living in warmer climates.
Climate alterations and emissions, the vitality of the soil, quality and quantity of the water sources, the presence of biodiversity are all aspects that influence the nutritional quality and richness of the food we consume.
As a consequence, also the way food has been cultivated and produced cannot be considered as a secondary aspect.
In addition to nutrition-sensitive agriculture increasing its appeal to solve global challenges, regenerative agriculture has also been gaining traction as a method to ensure a perfect balance between nutrition and environmental regeneration. “Evaluating the impact of farm management practices on nutrient density outcomes in crops is complex. Often when a management practice increases the concentration of one nutrient, it reduces the concentration of another. […] Producers who identified their practices as regenerative showed increased nutrient density (BQI) compared to those that did not (above). In addition to increasing nutrient density, no-till practices also increased soil carbon sequestration,” reports the BioNutrient Institute.
How can we compare, for example, the nutritional value of oils produced in Italy, in the Ligurian region, which is characterized by terraced land, relying on a specific micro-climate, and harvested manually, with monocultures of olive oil trees, extracted through intensive and extensive agricultural practices?
This is evidence now embedded in the current debate about environmental labels. With consumers increasingly paying attention to the environmental impacts of their food choices and considering the rise in eco-anxiety and climate anxiety, especially among youths, countries such as Belgium have started unveiling labels based on Product Environmental Footprint (Enviroscore).
What it is crucial to keep in mind, is that nature works in an ecosystemic way. Isolating single standards, methods of production, or even environmental impacts (such as considering in silos GHG emissions, biodiversity loss, and water pollution), may be misleading for consumers who are not educated to embrace ecosystemic thinking.
Leading consumers to make more healthy and nutritious food choices inevitably passes through the rules of the market.
One of the major concerns about nutritional labels is the risk of creating confusion and bias among eaters for products that are labeled and those which are not, especially when nutritional schemes are applied on a voluntary basis. Like a cascade, these effects can also reverberate on food distributors and suppliers, who may discourage products that do not include recommended labelings, with serious consequences in terms of a free circulation of food products both in the internal and external markets.
On the other hand, what would be the costs of introducing front package labeling policies on micro-, small-, and medium-farmers? It is not a secondary question given that small- and family-farmers are often most respectful of the local landscape, promote territorial economies, support the short supply chain (which inevitably affects the nutritional value of food), and are associated with diversity in agricultural practices, stronger biodiversity protection, and better ecological benefits.
Not informing consumers about where food has been produced, who produced it, how many kilometers food has traveled, and which agricultural practices stand behind it inevitably compromises not only nutritional awareness but may also hinder precious forms of local prosperity.
Learning lessons from the Mediterranean Lifestyle
Nutrition comes through food and with food, no doubt about it.
Consequently, the nutritional value of food adapts according to the way food is produced, harvested, transformed, distributed, and consumed, it follows the level of respect of natural resources (air, water, soil, biodiversity) and the practices of people who take care of the land (farmers).
The Mediterranean Diet represents a perfect example in this direction: a way of living and behaving that truly respects the landscape, the territory, the individual, the community, the economy, by fostering diversity in all its forms and adapting to the cycles of nature.
It is for this reason that the Mediterranean diet has defeated time and reached the 21st century: conviviality, a deep connection with the social and natural environments, respect for tradition and culture are not only the tangible manifestation of common values and a deeply holistic approach (or integral ecological regeneration), but also a hymn of a collaborative approach — as I have already talked in my last article here, which also finds a concrete manifestation in its nutritional levels.
It is not surprising then, that in 2022, for the fifth consecutive year, the Mediterranean Diet is applauded as “best overall diet of the year,” in addition to the recognitions as easiest diet to follow, the best diet for healthy eating, best diet for diabetes, and best plant-based diet. It is a diet that not only prioritizes fresh and local fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, moderate and sustainable meat and fish, but also a diet that offers “variety, flexibility and few if any, rules.”
Restoring the ancient integral ecological approach and embracing rather than unraveling complexities is precisely the aim of the Paideia Campus in Pollica, an open-air living lab to reinstate the traditional ecological knowledge of the Mediterranean area and make it accessible to the general public.
Part of the vision behind Pollica 2050 is in fact:
- studying nutritional value and microbiome, and developing rich-in-micronutrient products (Mediterranean Food Lab);
- enhancing, promoting, disseminating the food heritage of Southern Italy and encouraging cultural exchanges of food and wine from different countries in the Mediterranean area (MedEatResearch Lab);
- researching the processes of action and institutionalization behind food behavior, and the interconnected aggregate dynamics of food supply and demand (Mediterranean Communication Lab);
- monitoring environmental parameters essential to identifying the key parameters of “longevity” (Mediterranean Mind Lab).
Instead of identifying better nutrition as a final, isolated goal, national and EU Policies should increase their efforts to better communicate the complexity and interrelation behind eating lifestyles and agricultural practices (where individual, mental, societal, economic, cultural, territorial, and environmental dimensions are all part of the same story).
And in this way, rather than being surprised to hear that the Italian, Spanish, Cypriot, Greek, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Romanian, and Czech Republican governments strongly oppose the hypothesis of introducing nutritional labeling systems such as Nutri-Score, we would applaud European policies for being able to find the right balance between regional homogenization and national cultural, territorial, and food diversity — “United in Diversity” also concerning nutrition.
The Future Food Institute is an international social enterprise and the cornerstone of the Future Food Ecosystem, a collection of research labs, partnerships, initiatives, platforms, networks, entrepreneurial projects and academic programs, aiming to build a more equitable world, grounded in integral ecological regeneration, through enlightening a world-class breed of innovators, boosting entrepreneurial potential, and improving agri-food expertise and tradition.
Future food advocates for positive change through initiatives in Waste & Circular Systems, Water Safety & Security, Climate, Earth Regeneration, Mediterranean Foodscape, Nutrition for All, Humana Communitas, and Cities of the Future as we catalyze progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).