The Nutri-Score food choice logo has been developed to identify products within the same food group1 easy to compare. This should help consumers to choose less unhealthy packaged food and should lead to fewer and less serious diseases of affluence at the level of the population as a whole.
About 160 Dutch food scientists protested against the Nutri-Score. They point out that a number of products in the Dutch Wheel of Five have a low Nutri-Score; think olive oil. On the other hand, products that are not in the Wheel of Five also receive a high Nutri-Score (a light green B or even a dark green A). This could leave the consumer confused: What’s healthy if olive oil gets an orange D and Cola-Cola Zero a light green B?
Are consumers confused by Nutri-Scores that do not match the knowledge they have about healthy food and do consumers compare the Nutri-Scores of incomparable products? Those two questions must be asked to the public itself
It is possible to determine whether the criticism makes sense on the basis of two types of questions. Do the Nutri-Scores of products match consumers’ ideas about healthy eating? After all, the logo has little chance of success if it turns out to be counter-intuitive. Do consumers use the Nutri-Score in the way the logo intended, that is, by distinguishing between different food groups and comparing the color scores only within those categories? The Nutri-Score is not intended to compare the Nutri-Score of milk with that of soft drinks or that of beer with olive oil.
In other words, are consumers confused by Nutri-Scores that do not match the knowledge they have about healthy food and do consumers compare the Nutri-Scores of incomparable products? Those two questions must be put to the public itself.
With the aim of a factual exploration of the reactions among consumers, I asked these questions to Foodlog readers via a detailed questionnaire. The questionnaire and composition of the group of participants only pretend to be exploratory and not to provide definitive answers. However, exploratory research can be an indication that follow-up research is useful.
Knowledge about healthy food
The questionnaire tested whether the Nutri-Score corresponds to the participants’ knowledge about healthy nutrition and not whether the Nutri-Score corresponds to the dietary guidelines. After all, not everyone has the same knowledge about healthy food, the dietary guidelines or the Nutri-Score.
Although the Nutri-Score can already be found on a number of products in supermarkets, so far little has been communicated to consumers about the meaning and best use of the logo. In order to obtain as realistic a picture as possible of the current situation, the questionnaire therefore deliberately did not provide additional information about a healthy diet or the Nutri-Score.
The participants of the questionnaire
The questionnaire was completed by 125 Foodlog readers and followers on social media who self-registered to participate. Most of the participants were female (69%), higher educated (86.6%), younger than 30 years (41%), had a healthy BMI (66%) and were already familiar with the term Nutri-Score ( 68%).
Products that have been compared
The questionnaire compared different products, either within the same food group or from different food groups. The six equations were as follows (Figure 1):
- Coca-Cola (Nutri-Score E) vs Coca-Cola Zero (Nutri-Score B) – Comparison within a food group
- Olive Oil (Nutri-Score D) vs Coca Cola Zero (Nutri-Score B) – Comparison between food groups
- Ristorante Pizza (Nutri-Score B) vs. Fresh Spinach (Nutri-Score A) – Comparison between food groups
- Ristorante Pizza (Nutri-Score B) vs Wagner Pizza (Nutri-Score D) – Comparison within a food group
- Grapes (Nutri-Score A) vs Bananas (Nutri-Score A) – Comparison within a food group
- Honey (Nutri-Score D) vs Tiramisu (Nutri-Score D) – Comparison between food groups
The same food group
The Nutri-Scores of products must make sense to the consumer. The results of the questionnaire showed that for 67.2% of the participants the Nutri-Scores for grapes and bananas correspond to the knowledge they have. Also in the comparison of Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Zero, slightly more than half of the participants (58.4%) match the Nutri-Scores and their own knowledge. However, a large quarter of the research group (26.1%) thinks the Nutri-Score B of Coca-Cola Zero is too high. The same reaction also affects (25.7%) the Nutri-Score B of the Ristorante pizza and especially in comparison with the Nutri-Score D of the Wagner pizza. One of the participants said about this:I think it’s crazy that a pizza can score a green area at all”.
Honey is a sweet product, but it is a natural product. The tiramisu is probably also nice and sweet, but a processed product with sugars, proteins, cocoa and often alcohol. I don’t associate that with healthy food, honey does
Compare non-comparable products
As expected by the Dutch food scientists, consumers in the research group (66.4%) find that the Nutri-Scores of olive oil and Coca-Cola Zero in this comparison do not correspond with their own knowledge about healthy nutrition. The participants gave as reasons that olive oil is in the Wheel of Five and contains health-promoting substances, something that cannot be said of Coca-Cola Zero. It also appears that 17.6% of the participants in the reader survey would never compare these two products because they have different usage times and goals.
Two other products that the participants (9.1%) are also not likely to compare are honey and tiramisu. However, it appears that some find it difficult to understand why a natural product, such as honey, is given a Nutri-Score D. Especially compared to an ultra-processed product like tiramisu, with the same Nutri-Score. One participant said: “Honey is a sweet product, but it is a natural product. The tiramisu is also nice and sweet, but it is a processed product with sugars, proteins, cocoa and often alcohol. I don’t associate that with healthy food, but honey does.At the same time, almost a quarter of the participants (21.4%) believe that honey is high in sugar and therefore not healthier than tiramisu.
Although the Ristorante Pizza and Fresh Spinach belong to different food groups, only 1.9% indicated that the two products were not comparable. This may be because pizza and spinach are both consumed during the same meal time, namely dinner. The majority of the participants (97.6%) think spinach is healthier than pizza. Yet even in this comparison, the high Nutri-Score of the Ristorante pizza was met with skepticism. One participant said: “I find it strange that pizza is labeled as ‘healthy’. Although it is mainly bread with junk, there is a lot of cheese and cream through and over the spinach. I also think that this label can make people think that the nutritional value of pizza is high, while in my opinion it is not that bad.”
In general, the answers to the questionnaire show that participants are not inclined to compare products from different food groups with each other
In general, the answers to the questionnaire show that participants are not inclined to compare products from different food groups. But if the products have the same eating time, such as dinner in the case of the Ristorante pizza and the fresh spinach, there is a greater chance that the consumer will compare the Nutri-Scores. In such cases, if the Nutri-Scores do not match consumer knowledge and/or dietary guidelines, this may lead to consumer confusion.
On the one hand, consumers seem to understand that spinach is healthier than pizza; on the other hand, it also appears that the participants find the Nutri-Scores of processed products, such as Coca-Cola Zero and Ristorante pizza, too high and are skeptical about the low Nutri-Score of olive oil. According to the participants of this study, the Nutri-Scores must correspond to the dietary guidelines.
Communication about Nutri-Score
Even though they have their doubts about the high scores of products they consider unhealthy (Coca-Cola Zero) and the low scores of products (olive oil) that they see as healthy, the results of the survey suggest that consumers do not eat apples. just compare it to pears. Nevertheless, the survey also seems to show that consumers lose confidence in the Nutri-Score if unhealthy products receive a high score within their category and healthy products a low one. This could mean that the Nutri-Score also suffers from the same problem as the blue check mark that made Minister Edith Schippers decide in October 2016 to remove the food choice logo from the Dutch food landscape. Clear communication about the meaning of the Nutri-Score – comparison of products within product groups – therefore seems important for a meaningful implementation. Serge Hercberg, the French developer of Nutri-Score, emphasizes this importance.
At the same time, based on the Foodlog survey, it seems fair to say that younger, highly educated and mainly female consumers are intuitively equipped enough to understand that a light green B for a pizza or sugar-free Coca-Cola does not even come close to the A for a pizza. fresh spinach. A broad survey of different target groups can end the war of words about whether the Nutri-Score is sufficiently intuitive and used for comparisons within product categories. In any case, it is recommended to conduct a survey like the above among mothers and young adults with low education, preferably both without and after a short introductory video with an explanation of the Nutri-Score as a comparison within instead of between categories. Nutri-Score hopes to make a difference to public health through these target groups in particular.
1. A food group is, for example, bread, cereals, fish or soup.