By embracing Nutri-Score, has Nestlé bet on the wrong horse?


The Swiss food giant Nestlé has had, by its own admission, a complicated relationship with the Nutri-Score front of pack (FOP) food labelling system, developed in France and now being promoted by the French government.

As Nicolas Delteil, the head of Nestle’s cereals division in France and Belgium, recently told French daily Le Parisien: “It’s true that we fought against it, but we came to our senses! Personally, I was always in favour of Nutri-Score.”

Delteil’s rosy retelling of the brand’s about-face minimizes both the intensity of its opposition to the scheme, which builds upon the UK’s traffic light system, and the extent of its current support. As recently as 2017, Nestlé and five other global food and beverage brands – Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mondelez, Unilever et Mars – launched a competing system dubbed the “Evolved Nutrition Label” or ENL. That initiative failed, and just two years later, Nestlé threw its weight behind the food label it had fought so hard against, to the extent the brand is now declaring itself ready to expand its use of Nutri-Score across the European Union.

While that tactical rethink on FOP labelling may have seemed savvy last year, events over the past several months raise the question of whether Nestlé’s endorsement of Nutri-Score could instead turn into a commercial liability. When the company first came out in support of Nutri-Score, the French labelling system was essentially the only game in town. Since then, however, Nutri-Score has come under fire for its treatment of traditional European diets, while major competitors have emerged.

The thinking behind the decision

It’s important to stress Nestlé’s change of heart was not driven by altruism. As Le Parisien points out, Nutri-Score – which rates the nutritional values of packaged products from a ‘healthiest’ green A to a ‘least healthy’ red E, and displays its finding on a five-bar strip on the front of the package – offers brands like Nestlé an opportunity to shape consumer perceptions of the healthiness of their products.

Thanks to the system’s positive bias towards fibre content, for example, a new Nestlé-commissioned study found Nestlé cereal brands such as Chocapic and Nesquick actually exceed consumer expectations for healthiness. While 60% of customers thought most cereals would earn a C or below, the company proudly points out nearly all of them actually earn a C or above.

Of course, the extent to which Nutri-Score influences consumer decisions is still an open question. In findings published this past August, industry research specialist IDG reported a lack of clarity among consumers about colour-coded FOP labelling. A 2019 study from Nielsen returned even starker results: only 14% of French consumers noted the guidance on the (Nutri-Score) label.

A rising tide of opposition

Efficacy isn’t the only question plaguing advocates of Nutri-Score. A growing number of opponents have criticised the French system for being too reductionist and ignoring crucial contextual information such as likely portion size, potentially steering consumers away from foodstuffs that have health benefits within a wider diet. There is also the matter of respecting and preserving traditional European diets, many of which feature cherished staples that run afoul of Nutri-Score’s algorithm.

Perhaps the most prominent critic of Nutri-Score’s approach is Italy, which holds Nutri-Score to be an attack on its traditional Mediterranean diet. Over the past several weeks, other European  governments, as well as powerful farming lobby groups, have rallied to the Italian side, forming a coalition to rival France’s alliance in favour of Nutri-Score. In late September, a new non-paper submitted by Italy and the Czech Republic and backed by member states including Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, and Romania was tabled for discussion at the AGRIFISH EU Council, setting out the coalition’s opposition to the concepts behind the Nutri-Score system and insisting any products with protected origin labels be exempt from a future FOP scheme.

That non-paper is likely to weigh heavily on the minds of officials in Brussels, who are expected to recommend the adoption of a single labelling system bloc-wide within the framework of the EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy. Whereas FOP labelling advocates hoped an EU-wide scheme would be mandatory, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides announced at a May meeting of agriculture MEPs (COMAGRI) that F2F would instead promote a programme of ‘harmonised labelling’, while further investigating a long-term solution in consumers’ best interests.

Amidst the tumult, a serious competitor has also appeared in the form of the Nutrinform Battery, developed in Italy and approved by the European Commission as a candidate for EU-wide harmonisation this past summer.  The Nutrinform Battery system addresses the perceived inconsistencies in Nutri-Score by expressing nutrients like fat, sugar and salt in a given food product in accordance with realistic portion sizes and as a percentage of the daily recommended intake, encouraging consumers to make more informed choices.

Chinks in Nutri-Score’s armour

Even in those countries which support Nutri-Score on paper, such as Germany and Spain, strong critiques of the system have put Nutri-Score’s advocates on the defensive. In Germany, agriculture minister Julia Klöckner only belatedly agreed to sign up to the colour-coded system in October of last year, having previously spoken out against its release and advocating instead for the introduction of a German-designed model. Klöckner had previously criticised Nutri-Score for anomalies like labelling fresh orange juice an ‘unhealthy’ red but sodas like Coca-Cola Zero a ‘healthy’ green.

The Spanish government, despite agreeing to implement the Nutri-Score system, has nonetheless decided not to colour code items such as olive oil, believed to be good for the heart, joints, and circulation when consumed as part of a healthy Mediterranean-style diet. Spain’s agriculture minister Luis Planas doubled down on that stance last month, going so far as to say his country “shared with the other Mediterranean countries” the belief that “not just olive oil, but Mediterranean products and the entire Mediterranean diet” must be positively evaluated by a future ‘European’ labelling system.

Nestlé has nonetheless doubled down on its backing of Nutri-Score, calling for its adoption as a bloc-wide benchmark earlier this year. In April, Nestlé and a wider coalition of 40 stakeholders, including other manufacturers, some MEPs, and consumer organisations, wrote to Stella Kyriakides asking for Nutri-Score to become the mandatory FOP system – only to be disappointed by her announcement a few weeks later.

As the debate continues to unfold across Europe, Nestlé may come to realize that, instead of solving its FOP labelling concerns, Nutri-Score has lured it into a far more protracted regulatory battle.