A new initiative by the European Commission that aims to improve the nutritional habits of European citizens seems to be a new threat for Greek olive oil, which will appear as an “unhealthy product” on supermarkets’ shelves.
What changes in nutritional labelling
According to the new Farm-to-Fork Strategy of the European Commission, by the end of 2020, all member states must adopt a harmonised and obligatory Front-of-Pack (FoP) nutritional labelling.
So far, the prevailing label is Nutri Score which was developed in France in 2017, aiming to help consumers make more informed and nutritious choices. Nutri-Score has already been approved by the European Commission for non-obligatory use and adopted by France, Germany, Belgium and Spain.
Nutri-Score is a nutritional label that presents the nutritional value of products using a simple five-colour coded scale. This way, consumers can easily and quickly decide which products to choose and which to avoid.
How Nutri-Score works
Nutri-Score ranks food products into five categories with distinctive colours (A, B, C, D, E), with A being the healthiest (dark green) and E being the less healthy (red). Based on 100 gr or 100 ml of product, the algorithm gives points for each element in the nutrition table that means bad nutrients (energy, sugars, saturated fatty acids, salt) as well as good nutrients (proteins, fibre, percentage of fruit, vegetables, nuts, rapeseed oil, walnut oil and olive oil). The subtract of the positive points from the negative ones, is converted to the result of the Nutri-Score table.
Olive oil…an unhealthy product!
Despite the numerous studies that prove the benefits of olive oil consumption for our health, according to Nutri-Score even Extra Virgin Olive Oil is “relatively unhealthy”. In the case of olive oil, the scoring method makes no distinction; overseeing all the beneficial attributes, it gives the same score with the rest vegetable oils and margarine. More specifically, according to Nutri-Score calculator (1) , olive oil falls into category “D” (orange) which indicates unhealthy products! Even more surprising is the fact that diet drinks (such as Diet sodas) fall into category “B”!
Under the pressure of Italy who pointed out the beneficial compounds of olive oil for our health, the Nutri-Score team upgraded olive oil’s ranking to “C”. However, even this improvement is not enough for a product like olive oil. Let’s also take into consideration producer’s efforts over the years, to highlight and educate consumers about the benefits of EVOO, especially in countries where olive oil is not part of their culture and gastronomy.
During the last decade, Greek producers have made great progress in improving the quality, standardization processes, and exports of extra virgin olive oil to the EU or other countries. More specifically, almost 1/3 of Greek olive oil production (excluding olive pomace oil) is sold to Northern Europe. Undoubtedly, this market share – that translates into 26.4K tones of olive oil – will be affected by the adoption of Nutri-Score, which is already a reality in some countries.
In German supermarkets, who take in a big part of Greek olive oil production, the price of extra virgin olive oil is much higher than this of other cooking fats. This difference is, among others, due to the higher nutritional value of olive oil compared to that of margarine and animal fats. By diminishing this nutritional value to “C” through an oversimplified scoring method, Nutri-Score puts producers in a disadvantaged position and nullifies all the studies that examine the benefits of olive oil for health.
PDO and PGI products.
The same problems arise for edible olives and other products registered as PDO and PGI (Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication), such as cheeses. In Greece, 20 different cheese types have been registered as PDO, including feta cheese which is already high in the preferences of the European citizens. From now on, any cream cheese heavily processed, made of low-fat powdered milk will be considered healthier than feta, that is ranked as “E”!
The pitfalls of Nutri-Score
Farm to fork or fast food?
But let’s take things from the beginning. With the implementation of the Farm-to-Fork Strategy, the European Commission’s goal is to improve the nutritional habits of the citizens and to combat obesity. The new nutritional label on the front packaging contributes to that direction. However, some questions arise at this point: How do we help people build better health by reducing the importance of the nutrition declaration and of the nutrients? How can we say what’s healthy and what’s not by examining only 7 parameters? And above all, how do we “bring the farm” to the consumer when we deter the latter from turning around the packaging and checking the ingredients and the place of production?
The creators of Nutri-Score claim that the new label seeks to visualize the nutrition declaration and not to substitute it. However, this would be the case if the label was placed below the nutrition declaration or at least on the same side with it. The idea that consumers can easily and quickly choose the products on the supermarket shelves, rather reinforces the mentality of fast food and at the same time, takes away the critical thinking when it comes to food choices. In other words, it enhances the two main factors that lead to obesity and poor health.
Can Nutri-Score make processed food healthier?
Another claim is that this new label functions as an incentive for food companies to produce healthier products, by removing the unfavourable ingredients and adding the favourable ones. That means a company can artificially bring a product up to the “A” or “B” category by replacing sugar with its chemical substitutes (e.g. sucralose, aspartame, saccharine) and adding fibers, without considering the trans fats or preservatives it contains.(2) Let’s take the example of a highly processed food, such as yogurt dessert which consists of powdered milk, 0% fats and 0% sugar, fruits and artificial sweeteners. This product is labeled as “A” contrary to the traditional sheep’s milk yogurt, which has not been processed for the removal of fats and is thus labeled as “B”.
Another source of great concern is the fact that the scoring method considers the nutritional value per 100 gr or 100 ml of product, regardless of the Recommended Dietary Intake (DRI) and the portions. In the case of olive oil, the score has been calculated based on the calories per 100 ml of product. At this point, let’s ask ourselves, who consumes 100 ml of olive oil alone in a meal? Respectively, soft drinks are also scored based on 100 ml of product, although they usually come in packaging of 250 ml at least.
States vs multinational companies
Many countries have already expressed their opposition to this scoring system, or they have declared that they prefer to keep the national labelling system their citizens are already familiar with.
More precisely, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Latvia, Czech Republic and Romania have co-signed a document and addressed it to Brussels, asking for the non-adoption of a common labelling system since Nutri-Score, as the suggested method, harms their traditional products. Other countries, including Finland, Croatia, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania and Slovenia, also ask to keep the systems they already have in place, as they better reflect local gastronomy and consumers are used to them.(3)
On the other side, the giants of the food industry demand a common labelling system. Over 40 European companies in the food sector, including Nestle, Danone and Mars, addressed a letter to the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, asking for the obligatory enforcement of Nutri-Score in the member states of the EU. More specifically, the representative of Mars, Inc. claims that the non-conformity with a common system will lead to increased costs for both the companies and the consumers.(3) On the same page, other big European supermarket chains such as Lidl, Carrefour, Delhaize, Albert Heijn and Kaufland have already adopted Nutri-Score. (4)