Italy determined to protect its gastronomy—and the Mediterranean diet

    Italy determined to protect its gastronomy—and the Mediterranean diet

    Thursday, 16 January 2020
    Nutriscore is the EU’s latest effort to standardise food labelling, but several Italian policy-makers fear that the system system risks over-simplifying nutritional information and thus lead to misinformation. Credit: Belga

    For the third year in a row, the famed Mediterranean diet was dubbed the healthiest in the US News and World Report’s 2020 ranking of best diets. As Dr. David Katz, the founder of the Yale University Prevention Research Center noted, “The hallmarks of a ‘best’ diet include balance, maintainability, palatability, family-friendliness, sustainability, along with healthfulness. The Mediterranean diet gets checkmarks in all of those boxes”.

    Though plates full of fresh vegetables, seafood and healthy fats like olive oil may be garnering continued praise from nutritionists, Italy has warned that the acclaimed diet is at risk from Nutriscore, the EU’s effort to standardise food labelling. Now that the labelling system is seemingly becoming the front-runner for bloc-wide adoption, Italy’s Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova once more made Rome’s ire clear, asserting that Nutriscore would misrepresent classic Italian foods as well as the Mediterranean diet in general.

    Devised by French scientists at French public health agency Santé Publique, Nutriscore is supposedly meant to help consumers make informed decisions when comparing the nutritional values of food products. But Italian policy-makers fear that the Nutriscore system is over-simplifying nutritional information, thereby demonising flagship Italian products such as parmesan cheese and olive oil which would receive a ‘red’ rating because of their high fat content.

    Pushing out the Mediterranean diet

    So deep runs the discontent that former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini even accused Nutriscore to be a masterplan from Brussels to permanently undermine the reputation of Italy’s famed cuisine. While Salvini is of course known for his inflammatory and hyperbolic rhetoric, Italians’ anger at the food labelling system is more than understandable. After all, the Mediterranean diet – rich in fruit, vegetables, and monounsaturated fat, while containing only modest amounts of red meat – is widely recognised for its numerous health benefits. It is surely no coincidence that Italians enjoy the highest life expectancy in Europe and some of the highest in the world.

    Yet several EU countries—including, unsurprisingly, France, as well as Belgium and the Netherlands—have already opted for Nutriscore, while others like the UK and Sweden have developed their own schemes. Although some MEPs are lobbying for Brussels to make Nutriscore mandatory, even the voluntary adoption of a sufficient amount of countries would make the labelling system a de facto standard across the EU – with the result that consumers will be steadily and firmly steered away from Italian salami, oil and cheese.

    The need for common sense solutions

    In response, Italy’s government is proposing an alternative ‘battery’ labelling system. Where the Nutriscore system offers an A-E/green-to-red labelling protocol, the battery scheme instead details the percentage of energy, fats, sugars and salt in a recommended portion of food as it relates to optimum daily intake. This would do away with the reductionist approach inherent to Nutriscore, which essentially paints a food product as either red and green— good or bad—respectively.

    The battery system Rome has devised appeals to consumers’ common sense, based on the logical assumption that no foodstuff is innately good or bad. In fact,  what really matters is the amount of any given food being consumed and the context in which this occurs: after all, food is more than the sum of its parts and no-one would suggest that grating a spoonful of parmesan on to your pasta dish is the same as consuming the cheese by the kilo. Rather than being alarmist, the battery system sensitizes consumers to how they eat, encouraging them to make long-term changes to their diets.

    Time for a rethink

    Despite the back-and-forth, support for an EU-wide labelling roll-out is high, especially following a study from France that showed the EU could reduce nutrition related deaths by around 3.4% every year if it imposed effective FOP information across all food products. Germany is the latest nation to adopt Nutriscore, and German Minister for Food and Agriculture, Julia Klöckner, said that she hoped it would bring to an end the “polarising” debate that had been running for a decade.

    This seems unlikely, given that even in countries where Nutriscore has been officially adopted, reservations remain about the labelling scheme. In France, the system was introduced in 2019 on a voluntary basis only. As it turns out, however, only a paltry 14% of grocery shoppers even pay attention to the label. As such, criticism remains—not only from Italy, which is presenting the European Commission with a significant hurdle when it comes to implementing Nutriscore in an ordered, EU-wide fashion.

    Without pan-European support, it’s difficult to see how patchwork uptake could be translated into compulsory adoption of any given scheme – if the EC sticks to its principles concerning the preservation of the freedoms of the internal market. Clearly, regulators and activists all have a part to play in ensuring that any nutritional labelling system is fit for purpose and free from bias.

    With obesity on the rise in the European Union, it’s not surprising that the bloc’s citizens are hankering for better product labelling to enable them to make healthy, sustainable choices. Europe shouldn’t take any shortcuts, however, in designing such labels—consumers need to assess individual products within the context of their overall consumption. Though the Nutriscore system’s letter grades and traffic light colours may seem easy to understand, the scheme risks muddling consumers’ understanding of what is healthy and what’s not—and, most unfortunately, steering them away from the very regimen, the Mediterranean diet, which has been once again characterised as the healthiest.