The Nutri-Score controversy in Spain

The government will approve the Nutri-Score front-of-pack label, despite the controversy that is generating in the country. "It will not be mandatory but it will be a basis for fighting childhood obesity." Some Mediterranean diet products call for their exclusion.


The Ministry of Consumer Affairs has confirmed that it will be approved before the end of this year and that, although it is not compulsory, "it will serve as an incentive for companies to improve the nutritional information on their products". The objective is to fight childhood obesity and provide consumer information. It will also be used as a basis for restricting advertising of less healthy foods.

What is Nutri-Score?

Nutri-Score is a nutrition label that converts the nutritional value of products into a simple code consisting of 5 letters, each with its own color. Each product is awarded a score based on a scientific algorithm. This formula takes into account the nutrients to avoid (energy value and the amount of sugars, saturated fats and salt) and the positive ones (the amount of fiber, protein, fruit, vegetables and nuts, rapeseed oil, walnut oil and olive oil). 

The algorithm gives points for each element in the nutrition table (per 100 g or ml) - that means bad nutrients as well as good nutrients. We then subtract the positive points from the negative ones and convert the result to the Nutri-Score table.


Adapted to the Mediterranean diet

Nutri-Score is generating a great deal of controversy in Spain, especially among food manufacturers, which are a gastronomic reference and associated with the Mediterranean diet. They defend their quality against a scheme considered simplistic and focused only on certain aspects.

Products with a high natural fat content are adversely affected. This has been the case for extra virgin olive oil, for which an exception has been requested. The government has asked the Nutri-Score Governance Committee to consider that, once the system is approved in Spain, no other country can force Spanish olive oil producers to implement the label on their products. 

In no case, according to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, will other foods be treated in the same way so that there will be no more exclusions. In the case of olive oil there are scientific reasons to argue for the change but not for other products such as Iberian meats or cheese.


Sources from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs have acknowledged that they are suffering a lot of "pressures" and "belligerent campaigns" by sectors that "get bad rating of their food". They have reaffirmed the government's determination to regulate labeling before the end of 2021; although it has shortcomings, it is the one having the greatest support within the scientific community. It is also reminded that "any sector may exclude itself" if it sees appropriated.

Minister Alberto Garzón said the implementation to be approved on a voluntary basis, with the expectation that the Commission will make it mandatory in 2022.

Two ministers, two opinions

Luis Planas, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, pointed out that Nutri-Score will treat the basic products of the Mediterranean diet "fairly". "I will not accept any label that goes against our interests," he also stated some time ago at a forum discussing the transformation of the EU agri-food industry.

The minister stressed his "defense" of the typical products of the Mediterranean diet and that was working to adapt the Nutri-Score system to these peculiarities.


Differences of opinion among companies

The label does not convince all manufacturers, who consider that healthy foods are sometimes penalized. Others are of the opinion that it is not a perfect tool, as it does not qualify, for example, the degree of processing of a product. There is, however, agreement that it is difficult to implement for one-ingredient products.

There is no official position on this issue within the Association of Food and Beverage Manufacturers (FIAB). According to its spokesman, Enrico Frabett sees a risk of stigmatizing nutrients or products when, he adds, the frequency or quantity of their consumption should also be taken into account, "reducing nutritional quality to a color and a letter is a bit simplistic".

With regard to the potential economic consequences of this label, Mr. Frabetti points out that it is difficult to foresee, although given the importance of Spanish exports, "having a bad rating will not help to sell abroad".

On the contrary, one of the largest meat industry associations, FECIC, points out "labeling should be applied in the same way and without exceptions in all member states that have opted for this system".

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Experts for and against

One of the most critical scientists has been Dr. Ramón Estruch, promoter of the largest clinical trial on the Mediterranean diet. Nutri-Score "does not evaluate the quality of proteins, fats or carbohydrates; it does not take into account the degree of processing of the food". "It mixes foods with nutrients”. "From a nutritional point of view it is aberrant". These are some of his most strongly negative statements.

On the opposite side most consumer organizations are. Their opinions can be summarized in this sentence: "Nutri-Score label is a good tool to help consumers make a healthy purchase".

Several sources