France has a food labeling system that gives products a grade on their nutrition quality. Should the United States do the same?
Eating more nutritious foods can reduce your risk of cancer.
And researchers say nutrition labels can help you make good choices between foods that are good for you and those that aren’t.
A study by Mélanie Deschasaux of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research found that eating food with lower nutritional quality is associated with an increased risk of cancer.
The opposite also may be true, according to the study published in the journal PLOS Medicine.
“The study confirms what most medical professionals already accept as fact, that whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases,” Yi Sherry Zhang, PhD, research scientist of precision nutrition and population genetics and founder of GenoPalate, told Healthline.
“We have inventories of data to suggest that highly nutritious foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, decrease risk of cancer,” added New Jersey nutritionist Tina Marinaccio.
She noted that populations that follow nutritious, plant-based diets, such as Seventh Day Adventists, have decreased risk for certain cancers.
In the study, individual diets were assessed using the British Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling system, or FSAm-NPS.
The study analyzed food intake data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition from 471,495 adults, giving each an FSAm-NPS score.
Among patients with the lowest dietary nutrition scores, cancer rates were found to be 81 per 10,000 “person years,” compared to 69.5 among those whose scores indicated they ate the most nutritious diets.
“Higher [scores] were specifically associated with higher risks of cancers of the colon-rectum, upper aerodigestive tract and stomach, lung for men, and liver and postmenopausal breast for women,” the study concluded.
Researchers suggested that FSAm-NPS should be used more widely to help guide consumer dietary choices.
An example is the voluntary FSAm-NPS–based Nutri-Score system, recently adopted for front-of-the-box package labeling in France.
Nutri-Score gives five color-coded ratings of packaged foods, from most (A) to least (E) nutritious.
Belgium also recently committed to adopting Nutri-Score, which a 2017 study concluded was “associated with a higher nutritional quality of purchases.”
“There is evidence that the Nutri-Score can be used as a tool to help consumers make informed choices, particularly regarding portion size of less healthful products, and that it is more effective than some of the other proposed front-of-package labeling,” said dietitian Summer Yule, pointing to a recent in the journal Nutrients.
The study “supports the relevance of the FSAm-NPS as underlying nutrient profiling system for front-of-pack nutrition labels, as well as for other public health nutritional measures,” according to Deschasaux and her colleagues.
Yule told Healthline that the findings don’t mean that people should only eat foods with a Nutri-Score of “A.”
“Adopting a certain dietary pattern is no guarantee of protection against cancer,” said Yule.
“I worry a bit that people who read studies such as this one may become overly restrictive in their dietary habits, making decisions that are based on fear. The idea is to get people to shift their choices toward the A/B end, rather than cutting out certain foods completely.”
Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based diet and nutrition coach with Arivale, says that teaching people how to prepare more nutritious foods is an important part of encouraging people to change their diets.
“If you just pick up a bean and eat it, it doesn’t taste like much,” she told Healthline. “You need to give [the same] level of attention to preparing these kinds of food that you would when grilling a steak.”
That includes using sauces and spices, as well as cooking methods that preserve the flavors of food, such as steaming rather than boiling vegetables.
In the United States, the Nutrition Facts package labeling mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides information but no assessment of the relative nutrient content of food.
“To help support consumers in making informed food choices, labeling products with easy to understand methods may support the prevention of cancer with improved nutrition,” said Zhang. “It may also help support a change in the industry to have manufacturers improve the nutritional quality of their products, making it even easier for consumers to make choices that support their health.”
She added, “This study was conducted in Europe. However, the United States is plagued with misleading or inaccurate labeling as well. Many areas of poverty are known as food deserts. Providing the suggested labeling changes would allow consumers to choose prepackaged foods that are more beneficial when fresh fruits and vegetables are not available.”
Marinaccio told Healthline that current nutrition labels are confusing, with manufacturers permitted to make marketing claims that have little to do with nutrition and information presented in a format that is far from intuitive.
“Just because a can of shortening has ‘Gluten Free’ plastered across the front, does not make it healthy,” she said.
“Does sugar appear toward the top of the ingredient list? This can be confounded when there are multiple types of sugar added under different names. It could add up to a lot, so check the grams of sugar also. And don’t be fooled by names like organic cane sugar, agave, and coconut sugar. On a molecular level, sugar is sugar, and they act on your body the same.”
Hultin says that while people should avoid prepared foods with long lists of ingredients, frozen food isn’t inherently bad.
“Frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh, and could be more affordable,” she notes.