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The Nutri-Score presents both a challenge and an opportunity for food manufacturers. Companies using it gain favor with customers. In an interview, Robert Möslein explains how sensory research can help companies to reformulate their products to achieve a more favourable Nutri-Score
The five-colour Nutri-Score label on the front of the packaging (Front-of-Pack, FOP) provides consumers with information about the nutritional value of a food products.
Studies show that the Nutri-Score works. Buyers immediately recognize and understand the label and alter their purchasing behaviour accordingly. A recent study showed that the nutritional value of the food the consumers bought increased by 9% (Julia 2017). This means that Nutri-Score clearly surpasses other FOP labels. According to a model calculation, the Nutri-Score could prevent 3.4% of deaths related to unhealthy eating (Egnell, 2019).
So far it is unclear whether Nutri-Score will result in buyers spending more money on their purchases. Some studies see this trend, others do not (Crosetto 2019, Mora-García 2019).
"Unfavourable ingredients" such as sugar, salt, saturated fatty acids, as well as a high energy content raise the Nutri-Score, "favourable ingredients" such as proteins, fibres, fruit, vegetables and nuts lower it. The lower the score a product gets, the better its Nutri-Score. The points range from -15 (A, dark green, healthier choice) to over 19 (E, red, less healthy choice). Two examples: The Iglo gourmet fillet with carrots receives the Nutri-Score A (green), the Iglo oven-baked fish a C (yellow).
In order for some ingredients such as nuts and vegetables to be included in the calculation as positive ingredients, they must have a share of over 40%. Therefore, the addition of some walnuts to a chocolate muesli, for example, does not change the Nutri-Score.
"The absence of a score may have an even worse effect than an unfavourable Nutri-Score."
The new labeling is voluntary, but manufacturers are very willing to use it. Danone, Bonduelle, Iglo, Agrarfrost are some of the manufacturers who favor early implementation of the Nutri-Score. Aldi, Lidl, Rewe and Kaufland have also announced that some of their own products will be labeled with the score. Nestlé is also planning to implement it quickly in Germany.
It is possible that in the medium term, customers will expect to find the score on the products, Alexander Holst, an expert from the consultancy firm Accenture, told the Lebensmittelzeitung in January 2020. Therefore, the absence of a score may have an even worse effect than an unfavourable Nutri-Score.
Improving the Nutri-Score
The legislative wish to reformulate some products sounds simple. However, it poses practical challenges for companies. Sometimes even the smallest variations of the product can deter consumers from buying it. This danger is matched by great opportunity. A favourable Nutri-Score will be an important help to the consumer when it comes to choosing between two products.
For a green A on the packaging, the customer may be happy to accept changes in taste - for example, less sweetness or a thicker consistency due to more fibre in the recipe. As such the Nutri-Score also provides manufacturers with a new tool to influence consumers' purchasing decisions in their favour.
The question for manufacturers is: how can I reformulate my product so that it performs better on the Nutri-Score, but consumers still like it or perhaps even like it better than the previous product?
One answer for a successful Nutri-Score optimization is provided by sensory research. With efficient sensory tests and research methods specially adapted to Nutri-Score, the researchers will be able to arrive at the optimum product variation.
The Institute for Sensory Research and Innovation isi in Göttingen has prepared itself for the new challenge Nutri-Score represents and is able to rely on its many years of experience to support customers in the reformulation of their products. In an interview, isi Managing Director Robert Möslein explains which hurdles need to be overcome and which modern tests are used to accomplish this.
Can you remember seeing a Nutri-Score on a product in Germany recently?
Yes, the light green B on the FruchtZwerge, a popular brand of milk products, can be seen on the supermarket shelves. Some companies have already gone ahead and started to use the Nutri-Score. Others are following suit.
Is it even possible to change each product so that it improves on the Nutri-Score?
For some products, such as sweets, this may not make sense, but a large number of products - from juices to finished products - can make significant improvements in their Nutri-Score by making specific changes to the recipe. Many companies are already reducing the sugar content in their products.
How does a fruit juice become healthier?
Rules are stricter for drinks than for other foods. Only water has received a green A. However, most juices tend to be in the orange or red range of D or E due to their naturally high sugar content. For example, the juice can improve its Nutri-Score if it becomes more fibrous, fruitier, richer in protein and lower in sugar.
How do you determine whether consumers find this acceptable?
We discuss with the manufacturer which changes in the recipe are fundamentally possible. First, we create an intelligent selection of potential prototypes, all of which have a more favourable Nutri-Score. Using a "toolbox" that we have developed specifically for the questions surrounding the Nutri-Score, we give these selected prototypes to both our taste experts and naive consumers for tasting.
We have a whole pool of different sensory tests at our disposal; two examples are the isi Difference Test and the isi Nutri-Score Impact Test. They enable us to quickly find out which variant is well received by consumers.
Can you give me a concrete example?
A manufacturer wants to improve the Nutri-Score of his pizza. This can be done, for example, by using less salt in the dough or topping, using mozzarella and milk powder with less fat, reducing sugar and replacing margarine with olive oil. If the original pizza is added as an additional variable, this example would result in 4 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 48 pizza variations.
Of course, these are too many to test against one another. However, with the Design of Experiment approach, we can reduce this number to a minimum, and, thanks to an intelligent algorithm, we can still extrapolate conclusions about all 48 combinations from the sensory test results. Finally, we put the most favourable 12 pizza variants to the test.
The data analysis shows us which changes influence the sensory profile of the pizza, and in what way they influence the sensory profile. Ingredients that have little or no effect on the sensory profile are good candidates to improve the Nutri-Score without affecting the taste. We then have the pizzas with the most promising new recipe put through a blind taste test.
What role does the Nutri-Score label play in your tests?
The Front of Pack label influences the likeability of the product. In some cases, the customer may be willing to accept changes in taste due to the better Nutri-Score. If none of the new variations performs as well as the original, the next step is to investigate how the Nutri-Score label influences the tasting. If the testers like the new pizza variant with a favourable Nutri-Score label as much as the original pizza without the label or with the previous unfavourable Nutri-Score, then we have found the optimum pizza version. This is not a completely new product, rather a slightly modified one that the consumer still associates with the original.
Why is it more difficult to improve the Nutri-Score for juices?
First of all, usually there are not so many ingredients that can be varied. Juices have a high sugar content, and the best Nutri-Score value has been reserved only for water. Nevertheless, the principle described above also works for juices.
We are currently carrying out a study with ten different juices. We want to find out which changes – for example, less sugar, more dietary fibres – make a juice perform better on the Nutri-Score, and to what extent the better score compensates for the acceptance of this change.
The advantage of the score is that it does not imply denying oneself something, as for example the label "less sugar" does, but rather symbolizes a gain in health. In addition, the Nutri-Score is multi-dimensional; thus, the manufacturer can make many adjustments to ensure that his product achieves a better Nutri-Score.
What is your impression: what are the questions that are now driving manufacturers?
Many manufacturers see the introduction of the Nutri-Score as an opportunity and have already started to adapt to these upcoming changes. Nevertheless, there is still a need for information. To what extent can I change a formulation so that the consumer still accepts it despite the change in taste that goes along with the improved Nutri-Score? Do I have to create a new product to complement my existing one? What improvements do I have to make on the Nutri-Score to differentiate myself from competitors? Is no label better than a bad Nutri-Score? In the consultation, we will answer these and other questions in detail. Our experience in branded testing helps us to discover the answers.
We expect that in the future no manufacturer will be able to escape the influence of the Nutri-Score. The earlier a manufacturer comes to terms with the new label, the greater the chance of profiting from the Nutri-Score.
Do you want to know more about Nutri-Score specific sensory testing? Get in contact with Robert Möslein.
Sources - Studies
Egnell, M., Crosetto, P, d’Almeida, T et al. Modelling the impact of different front-of-package nutrition labels on mortality from non-communicable chronic disease. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 16, 56 (2019).
Julia C, Péneau S, Buscail C, et al. Perception of different formats of front-of-pack nutrition labels according to sociodemographic, lifestyle and dietary factors in a French population: cross-sectional study among the NutriNet-Santé cohort participants. BMJ Open 2017;7:e016108.
Crosetto P, Anne Lacroix A, et al. Nutritional and economic impact of five alternative front-of-pack nutritional labels: experimental evidence, European Review of Agricultural Economics, 2019; jbz037, 1–34.
Mora-García CA, Tobar LF, Young JC. The Effect of Randomly Providing Nutri-Score Information on Actual Purchases in Colombia. Nutrients. 2019;11(3):491.
Sources - Photos
Title: Canva + A. Zurwellen
German Minister Julia Klöckner: BMEL, Janine Schmitz / photothek.net
Eggs: the creative exchange / Unsplash
Juice: eugenivy reserv / Unsplash
Dr. Fabienne Hübener is a freelance science journalist specializing in the senses and sensory research. She has been writing for us since 2017 and also likes to accompany our team with the video camera in the lab and at conferences.
Feb 1, 2022
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