Food and Drink For Members

Reader question: What's the deal with the 'traffic light' labels on French food?

The Local France
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Reader question: What's the deal with the 'traffic light' labels on French food?
A picture shows a "Nutri-score" panel, a 5-colour and letter coded nutrition label for food products, at a Delhaize supermarket in Brussels on April 4, 2019. - Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block introduced the Nutri-score label, consisting of 5 colours and letters, from A to E, and from green to red, which indicate the nutritional value of products. (Photo by LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ / BELGA / AFP) / Belgium OUT

If you're shopping in France you're likely to have noticed labels on food giving nutritional scores, but what do they mean and why do some food not have them?


Question: I like the French food labelling system as it helps me to eat healthily, but I've noticed that not all foods have a nutritional score - why is that?

The food labelling system, known as NutriScore, arrived in French supermarkets in 2018 and since then has been gradually expanding into more brands.

The system gives a score from A to E on all processed foods containing more than one ingredient. The score is based on a combination of factors including the levels of sugar, fat and salt in a food product, whether it is processed or not and its vitamin, protein, calorie and fibre content.

A is given to the healthiest foods and E to the least healthy.


The NutriScore system is, however, completely voluntary for food companies - although the health ministry has been involved in promoting the system and encouraging manufacturers to use it, it has stopped short (so far) of making it compulsory. The EU has also discussed making food labelling compulsory, but nothing is at present in force.

It's probably fair to say that the majority of foods on display in supermarkets now do display the score, with shoppers being able to draw their own conclusions on why, for example, a packet of chocolate chip cookies isn't displaying a food score.

The scheme has attracted some criticism from France's artisan producers, however, who say that the scoring system places too much evidence on fat and salt content - giving traditional French produce like Roquefort cheese and charcuterie an E rating - and does not pay enough attention to the health problems that come with ultra-processed food.

If you're keen to find out how healthy an unlabelled item is, the French app Yuka allows you to scan the bar code of any food product and be given a detailed nutrition score. You can also use it on cosmetics to check their composition.

If you're looking to improve your diet, the official recommendations from French public health body Santé publique France are;

  • Increase your consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, dried vegetables (lentils, beans, chickpeas, etc.) and unsalted nuts (nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, etc.), increase homemade food and physical activity.
  • Choose seasonal foods, produced locally, eat alternately fatty fish and lean fish, wholemeal or cereal bread, cereals, pasta, semolina and wholemeal rice, rapeseed, walnut and olive oil, and have a sufficient but limited consumption of dairy products.
  • Reduce alcohol, sweetened products and beverages, salted products, meat, deli meats, products with a Nutri-Score D and E label and reduce time spent sitting.


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