Can colored nutritional labelling improve our shopping?

A great experience “in real life” has just given its conclusion on the effectiveness of a simplified nutritional labelling, an answer to an old question: would a label improve our grocery shopping? The answer seems to be yes. With this labelling, shoppers are more likely to choose the vegetable pizza rather than the cheese one. Different systems have been tested in a “field experiment” in grocery stores in France, each system being supported by different stakeholders of the “nutrition world”.

Several attempts to simplify nutritional informations have been made in Europe in the last 10 years. In England, they use “traffic lights” rating system, also called “nutri-colors” in France.

traffic lights

In this system, “bad” nutrient content is evaluated with a color : green for low, amber for medium and red for high. Obviously, the colors also give an indication on what we should be looking for: green, or low levels of these nutrients. This system is supported by the French Food industry, and major food companies already use it (Nestlé, Mondelez, etc.).

But his system is considered too complex to understand for many nutrition specialist, and a French System 5Cnutrition research team has developed another system, the “5C”. For each product, a “nutri-score” is calculated based on ingredient or nutrient to promote (fibers, proteins, fruits and vegetables), and on ingredient or nutrient to limit (overall energy, saturated fat, carbs and salt). The product is rated on a 5 level scale, from A to E, associated with colors, from green to red.

System SENSFinding this system too “judgmental”, French retailers have developed another system, the “SENS”, which gives also products a score, but this one takes into account more criteria than the “5C”. The labelling gives landmarks on consumption frequency, from “very often” (green) to “occasionally” (purple).

And last but not least, the French Biscuits’ System nutri repereSyndicate has also proposed its own system, the “Nutri-Repère”, which are an adapted version of the UK system, without the colors (as for biscuits, the color would likely to be amber or red…).

The “battle” between these different systems has come to an end in March 2017, with the results of an experimentation comparing the effectiveness of the 4 systems in real stores.

And the winner is… The “5C”, with a slight advance on SENS and Nutri-colors systems. The main difference between the 5C and the others is that it never decrease the nutritional quality of consumers’ cart.

But what was the “real” effect on consumers shopping? In the stores where this system was used, consumers improved their cart nutritional profile by… 4%. It’s not a big change considering the difficulties posed by that system: to calculate the scores, it needs several informations that are not required by the current labelling policy, such as fibers for example. The feasibility of front of pack 5C labelling is thus compromised, as it does not comply with European laws. No doubt there will be another season of this compelling series.

When I compare labelling in France and in the USA, I feel we live on different planets. In France, we try to (over)simplify nutritional labelling by reducing every industrial product to one color, in order to ban chocolate and soda from our diet. Whereas in America, here is what we can find:

A simple sandwich

When I do myself a sandwich, I usually use bread, ham, cheese and salad… And if someone asks me what’s in there, I would answer just that. But today, industrial food makers have to put every single ingredient used in every single sub-ingredient. Meaning, bread is not bread anymore, it’s flour + water + yeast + salt + whatever they need to make it last for more than 2 or 3 days.

And even if in that case they could probably simplify the ingredient list, I am not sure this level of details is really important to the consumer. Nor it help them make better choices. What do you think?


Complete results of “in store experiment of nutritional labelling” (in French), Fond Français pour l’Alimentation et la Santé, March 2017

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