Five years after the Nutri-score was first introduced in Dutch supermarkets, the national government has embraced this certification as the official certification for food health. While the certification has made its mark on hundreds of products in supermarkets like Albert Heijn, the question remains: does it guide consumers toward choosing healthier foods?
Important to note is that there are two kinds of decisions that might be influenced by a logo like Nutri-score: choices within a category and choices between categories. In other words, whether people will choose the healthiest granola bar on the shelf (compared to other granola bars) or the healthiest lunch option (between a sandwich, granola bar, pre-made salad, or other food category).
The decision of the Dutch government to select the Nutri-score was based (at least partly) on a comparative study that looked at the effectiveness of three different certification systems in helping consumers identify the healthiest product (within a food category). They found that within 12 product comparisons, the Nutri-score led more consumers to identify which product was the healthiest, compared to the ‘Multiple Traffic light’ and ‘Keyhole’ certifications. Just over half of consumers (54%) could identify the healthiest choice with the help of the Nutri-score, while just under half (46%) could do so without any certification, with the Traffic Light and Keyhole certifications. It’s important to keep in mind, that although the difference may be statistically significant, the increase is from ‘nearly half’ to ‘just of half’.
This study indicated that the Nutri–score was easier for consumers to understand, compared to a packaging without any certifications where they could read the nutritional values and ingredient list. However, the study does not find that consumers are more likely to select the healthier choice, only recognize it.
The healthier choice is recognized within a category of products (e.g. within the category of frozen meals, or grain-bars). However, as far as we know no study has compared the ability of consumers to compare across different product categories, especially not in the context of shopping in the supermarket (rather than a lab experiment). And we know that when it comes to food choice, consumers do not always think within a food category. When choosing a snack, people may consider cut-up fruit, a grain-bar, a snack from the bakery section, a handful of nuts.
However, the Nutri-score is a relative score calculated per categorty, therefore comapring snacks from different categories is not possible. So, if someone feels peckish and wants to know if a granola bar is healthier than a pre-packed sandwich, it is not possible to figure that out using the Nutri-score system.
As we predicted two years ago, the Nutri-score label on products encourages competition between brands for a higher score. We see that snack brands Doritos and Hamka’s for example have changed their recipes and as a result have received a better score. Were consumers even in search of a chip with a slightly better nutritional profile? Nevertheless, manufacturers feel the need to ‘improve’ their product.
While they may now be relatively healthier (Doritos has been bumped up to a ‘B’ from the previous ‘C’ score), consumers have expressed disappointment in the change of recipe. The updated versions of these snacks are not as satisfying. We predict that they will move on to a different brand that has kept their original recipe to satisfy their craving. Chips are not eaten to fulfill a nutritional need, but to maximize taste. For these products, consumers might deliberately choose the products with the worst Nutri-score, assuming that this will be the version with the highest amounts of sugar, fat and salt, and as a result the tastiest version. In fact, a recent study found that 30% of participants made the ‘unhealthy choice’ likely because of the intuition that ‘a healthy product cannot be tasty’.
Not only are consumers disappointed with the manufacturer’s recipe changes, but the nutritional value change may not actually make a difference in overall health. Certain changes can be made to increase the score that do not make the product healthier, according to nutritionists. For example, adding water to a product will decrease its calorie content and bump up the score. However, this can lead consumers to simply eat more of the product to become satiated. These kinds of loopholes make it possible for manufacturers to get higher scores for their highly processed foods, while potentially not improving the nutritional value of their product.
Serge Hercberg, the developer of this certification urges governments that want to use it to promote the understanding that it makes comparisons within a category of products.
In the Netherlands, the media has given attention to the Nutri-score. For example, the NOS has released a video explaining how the scoring works and the fact that the comparisons made are between categories. However, other than media attention, as far as we know there has not been any national campaign to promote this certification.
Awareness of the certification is very high, nevertheless. A study from 2024 found that 90% of Dutch consumers are familiar with the certification and that 70% are positive about it.
The logo seems so simple and intuitive. Whether or not we make this interpretation consciously, for most of us green is go, yellow is stop to consider, and orange is ‘better not’. But in fact, the scoring is not intuitive at all, when you take into account how consumers make food choices between categories. It is not always a matter of choosing between two types of cornflakes, but a matter of deciding whether breakfast should be made up of eggs, toast, yoghurt, or oats.
Education about how the Nutri-score works and how its scoring is relative may help consumers who think critically when they are shopping for food. However, we know that often when we shop for food we do not think analytically. Many of us shop on autopilot, or shop based on visual cues that we barely register. A green logo will not always be considered analytically and thought about in the context of the food category – even by a consumer who is aware of this.
And manufacturers know very well that consumers do not make (only) rational choices in the supermarket. We may know that the score is relative and know what the category of food it refers to, and even be reminded that there may be healthier categories from which we can choose an alternative, truly healthier product. However, when we are making swift decisions on autopilot, a green light is enough to know it means ‘go ahead’.
As we move forward, it is essential for policymakers, health organizations, and consumers to critically assess whether the Nutri-score is a valid tool leading to better food choices. Firstly, we need to know whether it influences food choice, not only whether consumers are capable of understanding that a green A is better than an orange D. But we also need to know whether it leads to healthier food choices altogether – not just within a category. The evidence that is currently available does not support this.
However, if this system is here to stay, there will need to be educational campaigns that encourage consumers to think critically about how the score works. An A is not always an indication that a food is healthy, and a D not per se an indication that an item should be avoided.
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