The French good food revolution

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The French revolution of the third millennium starts with good food. Nutritional profiles and Nutri-Score, clean label, origin and Franco-Score. More balanced foods, fewer additives, short supply chain. Common sense and transparency, the ABCs. And in Italy, what’s going on?

The French Good Food Revolution, ABC

The ‘French gastronomic lunch’ – famous for its variety and richness of meat and fish, cheeses and desserts washed down with various wines (often ‘made up‘ ) – is also recognized by UNESCO. Which has in fact inscribed it on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

‘The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert.’ (1)

Without giving up joie de vivre on festive occasions, however, the French people have shown in recent years a willingness to innovate their daily diet. Under the banner of health and common sense, ABC.

A) Nutritional Profiles and Nutri-Score.

Nutritional profiles of foods are the first focus of attention. Reducing intakes of sugar, salt and fat is a condition for living well as well as long. And that is precisely why Nutriscore, a logo on the label front that assigns a color (and a letter, A through E) to each product, has become popular.

Consumers can distinguish at a glance, among the various products on each shelf, those that are most nutritionally balanced. Without comparing cheese with pears or oil with vinegar. Rather, comparing the various ultra-processed foods, from sweet and salty snacks to refrigerator or freezer ready meals. Where the complexity of the recipe makes it difficult to understand nutritional values that are still incomprehensible to most.

Business operators-producers as well as distributors, for MDD (or private label) products-are committed to improving the nutritional qualities of various foods. For the specific purpose of improving the rating of their products. And so, on an increasingly attentive market, promote sales of balanced foods that are good for the palate and good for health. At a time in history where obesity, overweight and related diseases(Non-Communicable Diseases, NCDs) are epidemic.

The Nutri-Score system, it is worth adding, is spreading from France throughout Europe. It has already garnered the support of several governments (Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany), several large-scale retail chains (those in France, but also Aldi and Lidl. See footnote 2) and some industrial groups (from Danone to Nestlé). And it is the focus of a special European citizens’ initiative, supported by leading consumer groups.

B) Clean label, ‘clean’ labels (and ingredient lists)

Clean labels-literally, ‘clean labels,’ which we have already written about-characterize foods made with simple recipes, eliminating non-essential food additives wherever possible. Their spread responds to the growing distrust of consumers, and the scientific community, of ultra-processed foods. The consumption of which, as highlighted in a recent FAO report, is often associated with obesity and related diseases.

Clean label success is difficult to measure even by the most meticulous analysts, such as GS1-Italy in its Immagino reports. Because they lack characteristic elements that can distinguish the relevant products from others. Beyond the presence, on some labels, of free-from claims (such as ‘no additives,’ ‘no dyes,’ ‘no preservatives’).

Moreover, consumer preferences toward ‘natural’ foods are demonstrated on a global scale, as noted above. And they find confirmation in the continued growth of organic, but also in Eurobarometer ‘s recent survey of ‘fears on the plate’. Where 43 percent of consumers surveyed report concern about the presence of ‘harmful substances’ in food (antibiotics and hormones, GMOs, environmental pollutants, pesticides, food additives).

Intermarché, the third largest retail group in France, said on 11.9.11 that it would reformulate 900 of its own-brand food products, with the twin goals of improving Nutri-Score scores and eliminating 142 food additives. (3) Starting with glutamate, titanium dioxide-which France has banned starting in 2020-etc. Research and development, clean label.

3) Ingredients origin and Franco-Score

The origin of foods and their ingredients is what consumers really look for. In Italy, ‘100% Made in Italy‘ has ‘overwhelmingly and crosswise entered Italian households‘ (GS1-Italy report, Immagino 2018). In Europe, the European citizens’ initiative #EatORIGINal! Unmask your food! has collected 1.1 million signatures. So that the Commission will now have to consider adopting a proposal for a regulation that would require the origin of the product (Made in) and the primary ingredient to be indicated on the labels of all food placed in the Internal Market.

However, France is once again ahead. The origin of beef in restaurants has been mandatory for 17 years already, thanks to a national decree ritually notified to Brussels. (4) And it will now be extended to meat of the pig, poultry, sheep and goat species. The French GDO has gone further, surpassing the very idea of EatORIGINal. Indeed, both Intermarché’s Franco-Score and Leclerc’s geographical label include an indication of the origin or provenance of all ingredients, not just the primary one, as well as the place of production.

Italy-France, affinities and divergences.

Italian consumAtors, like French consumers, seek good but also healthy foods. Coop Italia’s latest report shows a growing focus on foods that contain fiber and protein, at the expense of fat and sugar. Affinity.

However, Italian distributors, unlike those in France (and Germany), lack the courage to introduce the Nutri-Score. They thus miss a great opportunity to enhance the private brand and build consumer loyalty to the sign, with a concrete and shared sign of transparency on the label. Divergence no. 1.

Italian industries-or rather, the first two names on the list, which lead the industry’s choices-are resisting change. They compete on cookies whose calories are exceeded only by marginals, so they throw smoke on the Nutriscore. In the conceit that they are the masters of the market rather than the consumers. Except occasionally getting burned, as happened with palm oil (which prompted one to change course, the other to interstellar investments in advertising). Divergence no. 2.

Italian policy in turn does not even consider the public health needs related to theongoing epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes. It only follows the voice of the master, in the same way as the press panders to the orders of the big advertising investors. Difference no. 3.

PS: Food products in Italy, on average, have a better Nutriscore than those in France. In the first class for nutritional balance (letter A) are 18 percent of Italian foods, compared with 13 percent of those from beyond the Alps. Unspoken affinity. (6)

They are crazy these Romans!” (quoting Asterix)

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) See Unesco, Gastronomic meal of the French. Inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,

(2) The revolutionary Edouard Michel Leclerc announced on his blog, 25.11.19, that by the first quarter of 2020 it will be available on all references to MDD. The system has already been adopted in France by Intermarché, Auchan and others, with the only exceptions for now being Système U and Monoprix. V. https://www.michel-edouard-leclerc.com/categorie/economie/engagements/e-leclerc-va-afficher-le-nutri-score-de-tous-les-produits-mdd-et

In Germany, in October 2019 Aldi and Lidl in turn declared their intention to adopt Nutriscore. V. https://www.tellerreport.com/amp/2019-10-23—sugar–fat-and-salt–aldi-and-lidl-want-to-introduce-nutri-score-on-own-brands-.B1sH4gRYB.html

(3) SEE https://www.ladn.eu/entreprises-innovantes/transparence/intermarche-modifier-900-recettes-meilleur-yuka/, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/sante/alimentation/intermarche-va-retirer-142additifs-de-ses-produits-enormement-d-industriels-ont-commence-a-reformuler-leurs-produits-pour-les-rendre-plus-sains_3621729.html

(4) The Italian government under the regency of Paolo Gentiloni, on the other hand, issued decree-farce on plant location and origin of pasta, rice, canned goods. Which are worth waste paper precisely because they disregard EU rules on prior notification of technical standards to the European Commission. V. Dongo, D., 2019. Food Regulations and Enforcement in Italy. Reference Module in Food Science. Elsevier, pp. 1-5. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-100596-5.21172

(5) So most recently, even Health Minister (who is leaving) Roberto Speranza, like his colleagues and predecessors of every party and color, vows battle to Nutriscore. SEE http://www.ansa.it/canale_terraegusto/notizie/istituzioni/2019/12/19/etichette-speranza-non-accettiamo-modello-a-semafori-_e30447d0-d832-4a2e-82a1-2089a1d5e54e.html. Along the same lines a few days earlier were loyal MEPs Paolo De Castro and Herbert Dorfmann. While slimy Teresa (Bellanova) calls for an unlikely postponement of the implementation of reg. EU 2018/775 on the origin of the primary ingredient. Undoubtedly poor regulations, thanks to which a minimum of transparency could be introduced anyway. At the very least, to distinguish an Italian lentil from a Canadian one dried with glyphosate V. http://www.ansa.it/canale_terraegusto/notizie/istituzioni/2019/12/16/bellanova-regolamento-etichette-origine-slitti-di-un-anno_f9f43abb-312c-4bb6-9f76-e80eff3521dd.html

(6) The #OpenFoodFacts database also reports aggregate data on Nutriscore scores in Italy, at https://it.openfoodfacts.org/nutrition-grades and those in France, at https://fr.openfoodfacts.org/notes-nutritionnelles

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.