The Nutri-score is a logo intended to inform consumers about the nutritional quality of foods and allow them to compare them with each other, while encouraging manufacturers to improve the nutritional composition of their products. Its method of calculation has been subject to a revision which comes into force in 2024 in the seven European countries which have adopted it. Here are the reasons, and what to remember.
A planned update
When it was proposed by scientists in 2014 and officially adopted in France in 2017 then in 6 other European countries (Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland), it was noted that the Nutri-score would be updated regularly, according to the evolution of science in the field of nutrition and also the evolution of the food market (in order to take into account innovations and reformulations by manufacturers).
In 2022, the transnational governance of Nutri-score, which brings together the countries that have officially adopted it, has mandated a scientific committee made up of experts without conflicts of interest from the 7 countries to update the calculation method. Nutri-score. After 2 years of work, the committee published two very comprehensive reports on general foods and beverages ).
These documents proposed points for improving the initial algorithm, while maintaining its general structure. Recalling that the classifications of foods by the current Nutri-score were generally nutritionally adequate, the Committee however proposed modifications to the method of calculation for various categories of foods.
What changes for food?
Specific modifications to the algorithm are as follows:
- an increase in the number of penalty points for sugar content (15 points instead of 10 in the initial version). This choice is explained by the fact that a [ recent EFSA report ] showed that there was no minimum threshold of sugar content without risk to health and to allow alignment with European regulations , in order to allow a more adequate classification of sweet products;
- an increase in the number of penalty points for salt content (20 points instead of 10): this change is linked to the fact that a high sodium intake increases blood pressure and the risk of hypertension, which constitutes a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and chronic kidney failure . In addition, this change reflects the desire to align with current European Union rules on nutrient declaration. As such, it is a question of better discriminating between highly salted foods, in order to favor less salty versions and/or to stimulate the reformulation of foods by manufacturers;
- a modification of the allocation of points promoting fiber content to allow better discrimination between refined and whole grain products and thus be consistent with public health nutritional recommendations;
- an increase in the number of points for proteins (up to 7 points), with a limitation of points for red meat proteins (2 points maximum): the protein contents also reflect the calcium and iron intake, this increase therefore makes it possible to better discriminate between food sources of these nutrients. The limitation of taking into account proteins in the positive component with regard to red meat is justified by work highlighting the links between high intake of red meat and risks of cancer, particularly colorectal;
- a modification of the “fruits, vegetables, legumes, dried fruits and rapeseed, olive and nut oils” component, which now only includes fruits, vegetables and legumes (oleaginous fruits are now categorized with fat, due to their high lipid content);
- a change in the threshold between score A and score B
Milk, milk drinks, fermented milk-based drinks and vegetable drinks are now included in the category of drinks (and no longer, as until now, in the category of general foods).
This modification is motivated by the mode of consumption and use of these products (liquid foods which by definition are drunk and mainly consumed – alone or associated with other components – such as drinks), as well as by the desire to improve for these products the ability to better discriminate them based on their nutritional composition. This includes objectifying the differences in their sugar and saturated fat content.
Modifications were proposed for the energy components, those of sugar and proteins, the positive component “fruits and vegetables” and the addition of an additional negative component, with 4 points awarded in the event of the presence of sweeteners in the drink .
This last justification is linked to the fact that recent scientific work has not demonstrated any benefit from sweetened drinks and suggests a possible deleterious effect for certain sweeteners . On the other hand, there is a potential risk that the reduction of sugar content in drinks is associated with increased use of sweeteners. For all these reasons, public health recommendations in Europe aim to limit their consumption.
Finally, the ceiling threshold linked to the presence of proteins (initially set for negative products as greater than 11) has been removed. Indeed, maintaining this threshold would have led to problems with the classification of certain full-fat dairy products.
Stricter classification of products
Overall, the algorithm changes lead to stricter ranking of products, except for a few targeted groups. Sweet and savory products are ranked less favorably due to the now more penalizing allocation of points.
This impacts sugary breakfast cereals, for example. In recent years, these products have undergone reformulations which have significantly reduced their sugar content (from more than 40 to 20-22 g of sugar/100g of cereals). Furthermore, the concomitant reduction in their salt content and the addition of whole wheat, a source of fiber, gradually allowed them to find themselves classified from C to B then just below the threshold allowing them to be classified as A.
The manufacturer’s reformulation effort is commendable. However, these cereals still contain relatively high quantities of sugar and are therefore again classified as C, which allows discrimination compared to natural cereals which contain no or very little sugar (0 to 7 g/100g ) and which remain in A.
However, it must be emphasized that even in C, these “reformulated” cereals remain better classified than their competitors who have not made an effort to reduce their sugar content: the latter generally contain 30 to 40 g per 100g, which positions them in D or E.
Sweetened dairy products are also ranked less favorably. This downgrading is legitimate, because the initial calculation method of the algorithm, less penalizing for sugar in the calculation method for general foods, led to certain flavored milks (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, etc.) and yogurts to drink, although sweetened. , to benefit from an overly favorable classification.
From now on, “flavored milks” and “sweetened milk drinks” will no longer be classified A or B (as was previously the case), but mainly in D and E (some of these drinks with a low sugar content may be found in C ). Likewise, fermented milk-based drinks (including sweetened and flavored drinking yoghurts) will no longer be classified as A but will be differentiated according to their sugar content between Nutri-score classes C and E.
Plant-based drinks (including soy-based, almond-based, oat-based, rice-based drinks, etc.) will no longer be classified as A as currently. They will be distributed between classes B and E according to their nutritional composition, in particular their sugar content.
Pressed cheeses with a low salt content (such as Emmental) go from D to C, the other cheeses remaining C, D or E depending on their salt content and saturated fatty acids (high intakes of which are linked at an increased risk of chronic diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases).
Red meat ( excessive consumption of which is considered to pose a high risk of certain cancers ) is ranked lower than poultry or fish (the consumption of which is not associated with adverse effects on health).
Fishery products, and in particular fatty fish without added salt or oil, are mainly classified in categories A and B of the Nutri-score (which is justified by epidemiological work highlighting their favorable effects on health, particularly due to their high omega-3 content ).
Whole-grain breads rich in fiber are classified as A, while white breads (refined, therefore less rich in nutrients and fiber) are classified as B or C depending on their salt content.
Dried oilseed fruits and seeds without added salt or sugar are mostly A or B while salty and/or sweet versions are on average C or D.
Oils with low levels of saturated fatty acids (olive, rapeseed, nuts, oleic sunflower oil) are now classified B, while other oils are classified C or D depending on their saturated fatty acid contents. Coconut oil and butter are maintained in E due to their high saturated fat content).
Prepared meals, particularly rich in saturated fat or salt, are classified less favorably, moving on average from classes A/B to classes B/C or even D for certain product categories, notably certain pizzas.
Drinks: only water remains A
Regarding drinks, water remains the only drink classified A. Sweetened drinks with very limited sugar contents (approximately <2 g/100mL) move to B, while those with high amounts of sugar are maintained. in D/E, allowing better discrimination of drinks based on their sugar content.
Drinks containing sweeteners are no longer classified as B but as C (or even D or E for those which contain both sweeteners and sugar).
Skimmed and semi-skimmed milks are found in B, that is to say in the most favorable Nutri-score classes for drinks, since only water is classified A. They are now differentiated from whole milk, which is classified C. Sweetened milk drinks (flavored milks), as well as flavored drinking yogurts are no longer classified in B (as was the case with the previous version of the Nutri-score) but are mainly found in D and E (only some low sugar ones can be C).
Plant-based drinks (soy, oats, rice, almonds, etc.) are
classified from B to E according to their nutritional composition.
The case of cocoa powder
Cocoa powders now have generally the same classification, regardless of the terms of their nutritional declaration. The European regulation on consumer information indeed stipulates that the nutritional declaration of the product can be presented for the product as prepared if the product cannot be consumed as sold.
Cocoa powders took advantage of this possibility by often indicating the nutritional values for 100g or 100mL of product prepared according to a detailed preparation method, therefore containing a large part of semi-skimmed milk.
This led to them being given a rather favorable Nutri-score (generally B). With the update of the algorithm, whether the declaration is made on the product as sold or reconstituted with milk, the Nutri-score is generally the same, i.e. D.
For other food groups, the current classifications remain unchanged.
2 years deadline for manufacturers who wish it
The revised version of the Nutri-score corrects some of the limitations identified with hindsight since its implementation. Above all, it allows for better consistency and better alignment with recent nutritional recommendations in force in Europe, for the benefit of consumers and public health.
This update of the Nutri-score is supposed to be in place since January 1, 2024 in the 7 countries that have adopted it. However, in France, it will not take effect until April, due to the Italian government: it has in fact resorted to an additional request procedure based on arguments devoid of any basis to postpone the implementation by 3 months. place of the revised version of the Nutri-score.
Manufacturers will benefit from a period of two years to apply it, in order to be able to sell off their stocks and renew their labels.
What can we expect from future Nutri-score updates?
An important point will be, alongside informing consumers on the nutritional composition, to also provide information on whether the food is ultra-processed or not (classified NOVA 4).
It is currently impossible to aggregate the 2 dimensions (nutritional quality and ultra-processing) within the framework of a single algorithm which would alone summarize the overall “health” value of foods. On the other hand, one possibility is to combine them graphically, for example by adding a black border around the Nutri-score if the food is ultra-processed.
A randomized controlled trial has already demonstrated that this type of combined logo allows consumers to independently understand these two complementary dimensions of foods and to direct their choices towards foods more favorable to their health.
Author Bios: Serge Hercberg is Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Sorbonne Paris Nord University (Paris 13) – Hospital Practitioner Department of Public Health, Avicenne Hospital (AP-HP), Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team, U1153 Inserm, Inra, Cnam, Chantal Julia is a Lecturer University Paris 13, Hospital Practitioner, Avicenne Hospital (AP-HP), Research Team in Nutritional Epidemiology, U1153 Inserm,Inra,Cnam, Mathilde Touvier is Director of the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team, U1153 Inserm, Inra, Cnam and Pilar Galan is a Nutritionist, Research Director INRAe, Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team, U1153 Inserm all at the University of Paris, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, Cnam, Inrae