Researchers have suggested that the addition of Nutrient Rich Food Indices to food labels could help consumers make healthier purchasing decisions. According to a study by the University of Minnesota’s Julie Hess and Dr Joanne Slavin, published in the Journal of Food Science, nutrient density scoring could represent a useful metric to include on front-of-pack labels to help consumers identify healthier products. “Nutrient density scoring, or calculating a numeric score for foods based on their nutrient profiles, could be an important metric to include on the front of food packages to help consumers identify more healthful products. This metric could be especially useful for deciding between similar products,” the researchers noted. The study focused on calculating a score for foods based on their nutrient profiles via two measures, the Nutrient Rich Foods Indices 9.3 (NRF 9.3) and 15.3 (NRF 15.3).
Concentrating on snack food products, Hess and Dr Slavin applied NRF 9.3 and NRF 15.3 calculations to products contained within in a number of sub-categories. These included cakes, cookies and pastries; sweets; vegetables; alcohol; milk desserts; crackers and salty snacks; soft drinks; other grains; whole fruit; as well as coffee and tea. The researchers concluded that vegetables and coffee/tea were the most nutrient-dense snacks. Cakes, cookies and pastries alongside sweets were awarded the lowest category scores. The researchers did find, however, that the two NRF indices calculated divergent nutrient scores. “The differences between NRF 9.3 and 15.3 scores generated for the same foods and the limitations of these indices highlight the need for careful consideration of which nutrient-density measure to include on food labels.” Combatting consumer confusion Nutrient density calculations could be an effective means of combatting confusion over the definition of a ‘healthy snack’, Hess and Slavin suggested. “In part, because there is no definition of a ‘snack’, there are few official recommendations for healthy snack selection,” they noted. Additionally, while a Food and Drug Administration-backed definition of ‘healthy’ – which products have to meet if they are to carry the word on their packaging in the US – does exist, the word nevertheless has different meanings to different consumers. As a result, “consumers have difficulty identifying nutrient-dense foods even after reading food labels”.
Existing labelling claims, which frequently focus on reduced levels of specific nutrients such as fat, sodium or sugar, fail to communicate the overall nutrient profile of products, previous studies have concluded. One investigation, headed up by Dr Linsey Smith Taillie, went so far as to suggest that a “lack of consistency” can open the door to content claims used “to sell generally unhealthy food as a healthier alternative” . The study evaluated 80m nutrient claims on products between 2008 and 2012. “These results suggest (but are not conclusive) that in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat actually may be more likely to have low-/no-content claims,” Dr Taillie suggested. European regulators in deadlock Front of pack nutritional food labelling is a contentious issue in Europe.
While there has been some action at a national level – with the UK’s introduction of voluntary traffic light labels – the European Parliament has failed to agree on a pan-European approach to nutritional labelling. Indeed, last year, Members of the European Parliament asked the European Commission to investigate the commercial impact of the UK’s traffic light scheme, which provides colour-coded front of pack nutritional information. The move returned to proceedings that were opened against the UK policy back in 2014. In their motion, the group of 100 MEPs stressed that UK sales of products like Parma ham and French brie that do not carry traffic light labels had risen, while those carrying amber or red traffic light labels have dipped 8-14%.