Food traffic light explained in detail

The Nutri-Score aims to motivate consumers to choose healthier foods. However, the nutritional value traffic light has weaknesses

Rainbow logo for food: This should lead to a more balanced diet for the population and counteract obesity

© ddp Images / LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ / Belga News Ag

One of those things is eating healthy and shopping at the supermarket. Because, honestly, do you always make the effort to compare the nutritional information on the packaging? The content of calories, fat and protein, for example. And what about the carbohydrates? How much sugar is actually acceptable for a balanced diet? And if one cereal has more sugar and the other has more fat, which one is better for me?

No wonder that many prefer to use the familiar brand or the product with the most appealing packaging design. The healthy diet, however, easily falls by the wayside.

Nutri-Score for healthier purchasing decisions

A little more mindfulness when choosing food would do well: 47 percent of women, 62 percent of men and 15 percent of children and adolescents in Germany are overweight or even obese. There is no lack of goodwill. According to the current “Nutrition Report”, 91 percent of consumers rate healthy eating as important. It seems reasonable to assume that they simply lack a perspective in the food jungle.

A new food label should now offer more orientation: the Nutri-Score. Since November 2020, it has been allowed to print on the front of packaging in Germany. This should support consumers in their purchase decision and make our eating habits healthier overall.

Comparison at a glance

The Nutri-Score is a traffic light with five colors and additional letters. There is a dark green A, a light green B, a yellow C, an orange-red D and a red E. How a food is rated depends on its overall nutritional profile. Minus points are awarded for cheap components. They are offset against the plus points for unfavorable ingredients to form a total value. This ultimately results in the assignment to a color-assigned letter.

“We very much welcome the fact that food manufacturers in Germany are now allowed to label their products with the Nutri-Score. Together with other associations and specialist societies, we have campaigned for this for years, "says Sabine Holzäpfel from the Baden-Württemberg consumer center and adds:" The system allows consumers to compare products in the supermarket at a glance. And very straightforward and intuitive. "

French people shop healthier

The Nutri-Score was developed in France. It found its way onto the supermarket shelves there in 2017. Scientists investigated how this marking of food affects shopping behavior. In fact, it motivated selected test participants to choose products with a more favorable nutritional composition. The French researchers calculated from this that the labeling could have positive effects on health.

So far, however, there are no hard data on shopping behavior in French supermarkets. According to a recent survey, 57 percent of the participants stated that they had adjusted their preferred selection based on the Nutri-Score in at least one product group.

Only to a limited extent informative

But the expressiveness of the five-color traffic light has its limits. For example, sodas with sweeteners do surprisingly well because of their low calorie content (see box). Although they are better than sugary drinks, the sweeteners they contain do not go through as beneficial to health. However, the Nutri-Score does not take this into account. It also does not show whether it contains preservatives, artificial flavors or residues from pesticides.

"Of course, a simple traffic light system cannot fully take into account nutrition and metabolism," explains Dr. Benedikt Merz, nutrition researcher at the Max Rubner Institute, the Federal Research Institute for Nutrition and Food in Karlsruhe. But that is not the goal at all. The labeling does not differentiate between “healthy” and “unhealthy” - especially since the system only applies to packaged and industrially processed foods, but not to fresh fruit and vegetables or bread from the artisan baker.

You can't compare pizzas to apples

"The Nutri-Score is used to compare different products from a group," explains consumer advocate Holzäpfel. “So it helps to compare different frozen pizzas or fruit yoghurts with one another or to make a choice between cereal muesli and sugar-heavy cereals.” So the Nutri-Score only takes effect when the purchase decision for pizza, fruit yoghurt or breakfast cereal has already been made. In the best case, according to the idea behind the traffic light system, the consumer then chooses the variant with the more favorable nutrient composition. "If that succeeds, I would be happy," says Merz.

But the labeling has some surprises in store. For example, a pack of frozen French fries can be emblazoned with a dark green A. Because it only refers to the potato sticks that are in the bag. The color of the traffic light does not take into account how they are prepared - e.g. low-fat in the oven or in the hot air fryer or deep-fried in hot fat. And thus not the number of calories that are actually ingested.

The Nutri-Score is not mandatory

The five-color traffic light is still extremely rare on Germany's supermarket shelves. "I haven't found a single product with a Nutri-Score on the confectionery shelf," says Holzäpfel. One reason for this: the labeling is voluntary. “We need mandatory labeling,” demands Sarah Häuser from the consumer organization Foodwatch.

"Then advertising lies that, for example, advertise sugar- and fat-heavy products as 'fit' or 'wholegrain-containing', will finally be debunked." Häuser also hopes that mandatory labeling of foods with the Nutri-Score could motivate the food industry to manufacture healthier products .

The nutritionist and author Uwe Knop has concerns in this regard: "My fear is more that recipes with fillers will be changed, which will make the product inferior."

Eating has to be learned

So many questions still remain unanswered. "Above all, it will take a lot of educational work to inform the population about the meaning and meaningful interpretation of the labeling," says nutritionist Merz. It must be clear: “Paying attention to the Nutri-Score alone cannot make a healthy diet.” Rather, it is one of the many building blocks that work together to optimize the diet and health of the population.

Each individual must continue to strive for a sensible meal plan. For Knop, one thing is particularly central: "Beyond labeling, try to pay attention to which foods are good for you and in what quantities." That is the most important step towards health and wellbeing.