Recently, nutritional labelling systems in food packaging using a colour scale have been introduced in several EU countries. The purpose of these systems is to warn the consumer about calories, fats, saturated fats, salt and sugar. Such systems are the Nutri-Score, with a 5-point scale of red-yellow-green, and the Traffic Light, with a 3-point scale of red-orange-green, something analogous to the street lights. This colour grading is an oversimplification, which in the logic of the ordinary consumer is inevitably linked to the idea that what is red is “bad”, what is green is “good” and what is orange is “so and so”.
The risk that this colour classification may have is that olive oil can get a “bad” score because it is exclusively fatty, that olives can get a “bad” score because they have salt, based on the traditional method of processing, that a food that has vegetable seed oils or palm oil can have the same “bad” score as a food that has olive oil.
What troubles us much more is the fact that these colour scales can have the same use whether a food is a meal (a complete composition) or it is a food ingredient. E.g. plive oil is a food ingredient, no one consumes straight olive oil. Table plives are a side dish but also a food ingredient (e.g. salad, olive bread). The characterisation of an ingredient does not necessarily mean that the same properties are transferred to the food or product in which it participates. It is like looking at the tree and not the forest.
Olive oil and table olives have added value which is not expressed in these nutritional information systems. Their nutritional value, in addition to monounsaturated fats, is the concentration of antioxidants and bioactive ingredients. European legislation of course, renders the use of nutritional claims in cases as such, but in no circumstance their appearance on the labels is manifested with colour scales. Beyond their nutritional value, these ingredients are a significant part of our gastronomic heritage and our tradition as a Mediterranean nation.
Since the introduction of a uniform system of nutritional information on food labels is currently under discussion within the EU organisations, the proposals of the Scientific Society of Olive Encyclopaidists (4E) are:
- a) any kind of nutritional information should include a reference to the serving size, while at the same time rules for the definition of the serving size are established
- b) to avoid the use of colour scales and symbols that will impose choices on consumers without an essential understanding of the nutritional value
(c) it should under consideration the fact that a product ingredient and a meal or a food product should not be included in the same evaluation framework.
- d) to take under precaution the protection of traditional products such as olive oil and table olives, but also others such as honey and tahini, from misconceptions referring to their nutritional value at least.
(e) each nutritional information system must promote nutrition education of the consumer and must be accompanied by the appropriate communication actions for the understanding of the information.
The appearance of many symbols and colour classifications on food labels highlights another problem, moral and ethical. With the shapes and colours we do not promote the nutritional education of the consumer (at all ages and literacy levels) because we lead him to the unconscious choice based on symbols and not to the conscious choice by reading the information on the label. Beyond that, there is the issue of racism among products by discrimination between “good” and “bad” foods. Indirectly, but obviously, this discrimination is conveyed to food companies as “conscious” and “irresponsible” and to consumers as “careful” and “careless”. Finally, should we worry whether we choose our food or whether it chooses us?