Dutch consumers positive about Nutri-Score on products
From 2024, the so-called Nutri-Score on food products will be introduced in the Netherlands. The scores (from green A to red E) give a visual indication of the healthiness of the products. The European Commission would like to introduce the scores throughout the EU. The Nutri-Score should contribute to healthier choices of consumers and healthier products from manufacturers. Research by economist Martijn Huysmans of Utrecht University shows that 90% of Dutch consumers are familiar with the score and about 70% are in favour of implementation. Yet the last word has not yet been said. There is opposition from countries with unique regional products that contain a lot of fat, sugar or salt. In addition, producers can alter the composition of their products so that they appear healthier on paper, but in reality are not.
The Nutri-Score has not yet been officially introduced in the Netherlands, but is already depicted on various products. A representative survey shows that 70% of Dutch consumers are in favour of it. But do they also adjust their behaviour accordingly?
Some of the people indicate that they take that score into account and continue their search in the same category, possibly even wanting to pay more for a product with a better score, says Martijn Huysmans of the Utrecht University School of Economics (U.S.E.).
People rarely, if ever, look at the back side of products, even though there is information about the nutritional values. The Nutri-Score must be on the front and is clearly recognisable, so that you as a consumer can make an overall judgment more easily and quickly. The people who already looked on the back do not need that simplified score, they may be able to figure out for themselves whether it fits into their diet. But one would like to help the people who didn’t get any nutritional information before.
What is the Nutri-Score?
Originally conceived by a French team of scientists, the Nutri-Score indicates how healthy a product is, showing letters and colours from green A (healthy) to red E (not healthy). The score is the result of an algorithm in which positive and negative points are calculated. The positive elements are ingredients of which we should preferably eat more, for example proteins, vegetables and fruit. The negative ones are salt, fat and sugar – which we should actually avoid. For example, products with label A and B contain more fibre, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Feedback from Dutch nutritionists has led to a small revision so that the Nutri-Score would not communicate a contradictory message with the Dutch dietary advice from the government in the 'Wheel of Five' (Schijf van vijf).
Keep looking at the full diet
The idea is that you can see from the Nutri-Score how healthy a product is. But of course you have to look at all the other things someone consumes. After all, you also have to vary what you eat. If you only drink water and eat fruit, then that is not a healthy diet.
Not intended for comparisons between different categories
Moreover, the scores are not intended to make comparisons between different categories.
Most people also understand that it can be useful, for example, to compare two types of yoghurt, but not to compare yoghurt with breakfast cereals. And not cheese with cookies. Cola not with olive oil. People usually understand that, says Huysmans.
Perhaps you shouldn’t use too much olive oil, but that doesn't mean that a little oil in the context of a balanced diet would be unhealthy.
Endangered regional products
The European Commission actually wanted to introduce the Nutri-Score throughout the European Union by the end of 2023, but many countries did not agree with this. Italy, for example, is strongly opposed to it, especially because many of their well-known regional products (Gorgonzola and Parma ham, for example) are likely to receive a poor score due to their fat and salt contents. There is a threat of a kind of 'trench warfare' in which each country sticks to its own system or only a small coalition will implement it.
In our survey, we also asked consumers about these protected regional products, says Huysmans:
So: suppose you want to buy Parma ham but you see a bad Nutri-Score, what would you do? Some people are going to buy another ham. And you can also see that for Gouda cheese. They do say that they would buy another ham or cheese from that region if it has a better score. But regional products have to comply with certain rules, they cannot simply abandon their traditional recipe. It is therefore understandable that they are opposed to it.
An argument that is often used is that regional products are less processed. For example, the addition of preservatives – where traditional products use salt – is indeed not included in the Nutri-Score algorithm. I therefore think that the makers of regional products themselves should provide more information about this, should emphasize the 'natural character' more.
Are manufacturers really going to make their products healthier?
Consumers may be able to eat healthier if, on average, manufacturers start making all their products healthier, says Martijn Huysmans.
But what that doesn't take into account is whether a product has been processed, whether there are many additives in it. Moreover: if you look critically, we have to conclude that the algorithm to calculate the Nutri-Score is publicly available. Manufacturers can alter the composition of products in order to get a better score. For example, you get 'penalty points' for fat and sugar, but there is also a maximum number of penalty points. You could then reduce one of the other elements and still increase the sugars. Or add certain e-numbers or fibres. On paper, according to the Nutri-Score, the result will be healthier, but you may wonder whether it really is.
If you take the salt and fat out of chips, you're left with potato. Few people eat potatoes as a snack.
We all know that fat, salt and sugar are also tasty, Huysmans continues.
If you take the salt and fat out of chips, you're left with potato. Few people eat potato as a snack, while a lot of people crave crisps. Of course, the food manufacturers know what we like. It is the well-known story of ketchup, which contains a lot of sugar. If you ask consumers if they want sugar in their ketchup, many of them might say no. But many people also don't look at the nutritional value and if you let them taste, they are more likely to reach for that ketchup with sugar.
The manufacturers know that too. They want to make their products as tasty and as addictive as possible. They also know that 'healthier' unfortunately often also equals 'less tasty'. They do not want to lose the battle with other producers. Now that battle is often fought on taste and less on health. With the Nutri-Score it becomes more difficult for manufacturers to only look at the taste. They now have to start looking more at health. I think that the Nutri-Score will therefore provide incentives to reduce salt, fat and sugar and will therefore lead to healthier products and healthier choices by people.
Completely unprocessed products such as fruit and vegetables have Nutri-Score A. People should eat more of these anyway. A VAT reduction on these products could also help with this. The combination of a price measure and an information measure may reinforce each other.
Want to know more? Please contact Martijn Huysmans: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or read the article 'Meeste consumenten vinden Nutri-Score nuttig' (Most consumers find Nutri-Score useful) on ESB (in Dutch):