a small bowl of tomato sauce next to a plate of toaste bread with olive oil and below a plate with cheese and figs; to the right are small bowls with different kinds of olives

A debate continues in Europe about front-of-pack labeling systems for packaged food, with the European Commission (EC) planning to propose one scheme for mandatory use throughout the European Union. The EC is considering at least four labeling schemes, with the best-known, Nutri-Score, receiving significant criticism from the olive oil sector, among others.

The EC’s goal in proposing a single front-of-pack labeling (FOPL) scheme for the EU is to “improve consumers’ understanding of the nutritional value of foods, as well as stimulating food reformulation towards healthier foods and facilitating consumers’ healthier food choices” in a harmonized way across the entire EU, simplifying businesses’ food labeling tasks, according to the European Parliament website. The aim is to help “empower consumers,” and to “reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system and facilitate the shift to healthy and sustainable diets.” This is part of the EC’s broader “Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system,” itself a component of the European Green Deal.  

Most commentators praise these goals, but there has been considerable debate about whether any of the four proposed labeling schemes would help to meet them. Already used in some EU countries for several years, Nutri-Score is the best-known FOPL system proposed for Europe. It classifies foods and beverages in one of five categories, with letter grades of A, B, C, D, or E, from the healthiest (dark green, A) to least nutritious (red E), in different colored boxes.

a Nutriscore label for a product graded C

Some food companies, consumers’ organizations, and European retailers appreciate Nutri-Score’s simplicity, but others, such as the Exporters’ Association of Crete (EAC), argue that it oversimplifies the complex issue of the health benefits of foods. The EAC argues that rather than presenting useful information to help consumers achieve a healthier diet, Nutri-Score directs them away from natural or single-ingredient products and toward processed foods made by companies that can adjust recipes to achieve a higher Nutri-Score without necessarily making food healthier.

The debate over which of the proposed schemes (if any) will result in actual health benefits for Europeans has continued this autumn, for example with roundtable discussions at the European Parliament. One event organized by a Spanish member of the European Parliament emphasized the drawbacks of Nutri-Score, with participants arguing that this system empowers supermarkets, distributors, and large food and beverage companies able to manipulate product recipes to achieve higher scores, rather than benefitting consumers and small to medium sized businesses. Another event sponsored by the Italian representation at the EU argued for the need to provide reliable, accurate information in order to inform and educate consumers without misleading them, oversimplifying, or overgeneralizing, given variations in individual dietary needs.

One point that has been raised repeatedly by Nutri-Score critics is the concern that this scheme “penalizes the traditional and culturally rich Mediterranean diet, a model for sustainable food systems and internationally recognized as a healthy dietary pattern.” This claim was part of a statement endorsed by organizers and attendees at the 4th International Yale Symposium on Olive Oil and Health in Rome in September. The Symposium group proposed “a rigorous scientific analysis and assessment of the NutriScore criteria” and careful consideration of “all and any implications for public health” before any FOPL is adopted.

In addition to making a strong argument for olive oil’s categorization with the highest score on a front-of-pack label, or else its complete exclusion from such a scheme, the Symposium group endorsed a very rich discussion of olive oil’s health benefits in plain, understandable English. With 107 citations to scientific articles to support its points about those benefits, this white paper provides abundant evidence that olive oil significantly contributes to a nutritious diet, so that assigning it a low grade on a FOPL will have serious negative consequences for human health.

According to Italy’s EU representation (as reported by FoodNavigator), the EC has postponed their decision about a FOPL from the last quarter of 2022 to spring 2023. The issue has been recognized as very complex, with EU nations lacking consensus on the best solution. An EC spokesperson told FoodNavigator that the Commission will suggest options that “build on the already existing formats,” rather than encouraging the adoption of one of the four schemes exactly as they stand now.

The Nutri-Score image comes from https://fr.openfoodfacts.org/, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nutri-score-C.svg.

All businesses, organizations, and competitions involved with Greek olive oil, the Mediterranean diet, and/or agrotourism or food tourism in Greece, as well as others interested in supporting Greeks working in these sectors, are invited to consider the advertising and sponsorship opportunities on the Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil website.  The only wide-ranging English-language site focused on news and information from the Greek olive oil world, it has helped companies reach consumers in more than 220 countries around the globe.

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