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Front-of-package labeling systems compared: Choices programme and Nutri-score

Positive labelling systems such as the Choices programme have been around for years and in some cases even decades. While positive labelling is gaining interest in Africa and Asia, several other systems have been proposed and implemented in Europe in the last few years. Especially the French Nutri-score scheme has been gaining interest lately. How does Nutri-score compare to a more mature product label such as Choices programme? Let’s explore.

Both Choices and Nutri-score are voluntary schemes that take into account almost all food and beverage products and aim to enable consumers to easily make healthy choices while stimulating industry to innovate and produce products with a higher nutrition quality.

The Choices programme is characterised by one simple logo which indicates the most healthy products within a certain product group. It, for instance, shows that a certain kind of breakfast cereal is one of the 20% most healthy of all breakfast cereals in that market.

Nutri-score is a 5-level colour-coded scheme, ranging from dark green (healthiest) to dark red (least healthy) based on scoring all product groups via one overall criteria set, regardless of the kind of product (with an exception for beverages, oils and cheese).

A consumer perspective

People don’t usually spend many hours grocery shopping or choosing their lunch in a cafeteria. For consumers, it is therefore important that they can see at first glance what are the healthiest choices. Both systems seem to be able to meet this need. Although scanning for the presence or absence of a logo seems to have a slight advantage over searching for the product with a logo with a highlighted green dot and letter A, both systems would be able to serve the consumer in making the healthier choice in an easy and fast manner.

Both systems are voluntary, meaning industry can join the programme or they can choose not to. For the Choices programme, this means that consumers can’t know whether a product is either not included in the system or it doesn’t fit the criteria. With Nutri-score this problem seemingly is fixed by allowing all products to carry one of the 5 variations of the logo. However, many food producers would think again before they place a red logo on their package, while happily printing the green logos on the products that do comply. This will probably result in a strong overrepresentation of green logos on the products in the supermarket, which almost transforms it into a positive logo.

Consumers will be most helped with a system that guides them to the most healthy choice within certain product groups. When they are looking for the most healthy kind of bread, it is important that within that product group healthy products are available and easily selectable. As the Choices programme defines its criteria by the 10-20% most healthy products per product group, by definition there will be healthier products available for the consumers to choose from.

Although the Nutri-score system is not product group specific, - it uses an across the board method, measuring the vast majority of the products by the same standards - it functions rather well in selecting the healthier choices within several product groups. For many products groups, it manages to single out the most healthy products. However, for some product groups, such as emulsified sauces, all products are likely to receive a red label. As the industry is not likely to print red labels on their products, consumers probably will not be informed on the most healthy options. Neither will this be a stimulus for the food industry to reformulate.

Use for the industry

A logo system doesn’t only help consumers making healthy choices, it too stimulates the food industry to innovate and bring more healthy products to the market. Besides the obvious sales benefits of carrying a Choices logo or green Nutri-score logo, companies can also use the criteria underlying logo systems for their health policies. And they do. FrieslandCampina and Almarai, for example, use the Choices criteria for the health assessment of their product range and set reformulation goals for further product improvement.

The use of the Choices programme is rather straightforward; check if the product’s nutrient values fall within the cut-offs for the nutrients in the relevant product group and the job is done. The initial use of the Nutri-score system is not quite so much a walk in the park. Adding and subtracting numbers based on a ten-tier nutrient content score table will result in a final score, which ultimately determines the Nutri-score colour. Before you get the hang of it, it’s a bit puzzling.

The five grades of the Nutri-score system do facilitate the industry to stepwise enhance product quality. It gives industry the opportunity and guidance to improve their products gradually.

The Choices programme simply distinguishes between healthiest products and the rest. It seems like there is little room for stepwise product enhancement, but this not entirely the case. The Choices scientific committee reviews the criteria every 4 years. Taking into account progress in food innovations, changes in consumer taste preferences and development of nutritional science, the criteria are tightened when feasible. Previously certified products are being reassessed to see whether they still apply or if there is a need and opportunity for reformulation.

For the implementers

The use of a product group based approach offers much flexibility for the users, as Choices encourages to adapt the criteria to (national) circumstances. For example, when in a certain country there are no products available that match the international criteria, the national criteria should be altered so that the consumers do have healthier options to choose from in the supermarket. Also, the product group definitions could be modified according to the national food culture. When adapting the Nutri-score system, criteria for all product groups would automatically change which makes it much more challenging to customize to the situation.

For a successful implementation of such a voluntary nutrition program, it is absolutely necessary that all parties involved are willing to participate. Parties like the government, consumer organizations and industry all have to be enthusiastic about the programme for it to succeed. As Nutri-score uses both a positive and a negative label, the industry will not be lining up to join and put red logos on their products. While Choices only opts for the positive-only approach, the industry is encouraged and stimulated to reformulate their products, which creates an atmosphere of working together to enhance healthy diets for everyone.

Lastly, the Choices organization is the only front-of-pack logo system that supports national implementation by sharing its knowledge based on program implementations all around the world, by offering the use of software that specially designed to assess and administer the use of the logo and by sharing documents that facilitate smooth implementation.

For the research on positive front-of-pack logo systems, see the annual Choices research overview.

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