Systems for the nutritional classification of foods: comparison of SENS and 5C (based on Rayner's score)

The French Act of 26 January 2016 on the modernisation of the health system provides for optional information, in the form of graphics or symbols placed on packaging, that summarises certain data on nutritional quality, with a view to improving consumer information. Two food classification systems have been developed in order to calculate scores to be applied to each product, based on certain elements of its composition (fat, saturated fatty acids, protein, salt, etc.). These scores are designed to help develop an appropriate labelling system (colour, shape, etc.), which has yet to be determined. Following an opinion issued in 2015 on the first system, referred to as 5C and based on Rayner's score, ANSES received a formal request from the Ministries in charge of Health, Food and Consumer Affairs to assess the algorithm used for the French Simplified Nutritional Labelling System (SENS), with a view to its deployment on the French food market, and then to compare the classification of foods obtained after these two systems have been applied. In the report being published today, the Agency finds overall agreement and limited differences between the two food classification systems. It also emphasises feasibility limitations common to both systems. ANSES will be supplementing this work with a comparative analysis of the relevance of these two systems, in nutrition terms, in light of the public health issues.


The nutritional quality of foods can be assessed according to the levels of the different constituent elements: fat, saturated fatty acids, protein, free sugars, fibre, vitamins, etc.

To reduce social inequalities in health, the French National Health & Nutrition Programme is seeking to promote accessibility to food of good nutritional quality, in particular by improving consumer information relating to nutrition.

The European Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, known as the INCO Regulation, makes it mandatory to provide food information to consumers. In France, the French Act of 26 January 2016 on the modernisation of the health system stipulates that this information may be accompanied by a supplementary presentation or expression using graphics or symbols, in order to facilitate consumer information and help them make fully informed choices.

In this context, Professor Hercberg submitted a report to the French Minister of Social Affairs and Health in January 2014. One of its recommendations was the nationwide implementation of a nutritional information system that could be based on Rayner's score, which was developed for the UK's Food Standards Agency. In 2015, at the request of the Directorate General of Health, ANSES assessed the feasibility of calculating this score and suggested thresholds that would enable the foods to be divided into five classes. It also pointed out the limitations of this proposal. A subsequent request from the French High Council for Public Health (HCSP) led to the optimisation of the algorithm for this system, which ANSES is calling "Modified 5C".

Furthermore, another system has been developed in France: the Simplified Nutritional Labelling System (SENS), promoted by the French Trade and Retail Federation (FCD). This system divides foods into four classes according to their nutritional characteristics.

The Ministries in charge of Health, Food and Consumer Affairs asked ANSES firstly, to examine the calculating feasibility of the algorithm used for the SENS system, with a view to its deployment on the French food market (feasibility of calculating the scores in light of the availability of the necessary data, ability of the algorithm to discriminate between the different food groups and between the foods within each group) and secondly, to compare the distribution of foods within their classes after the SENS and Modified 5C systems had been applied.

Using data provided by the FCD relating to foods from the French Individual Survey on Food Consumption (INCA 2) and data produced by ANSES, the Agency was able to apply the SENS and Modified 5C systems to 1066 foods, before comparing the results.


ANSES's findings

ANSES analysed the feasibility of the SENS system from the perspective of a party that was not the food producer and therefore only had access to the data that will become mandatory on food packaging from 13 December 2016, following application of the INCO Regulation.

In terms of feasibility, for the SENS system and to a lesser degree for the Modified 5C system, the availability of composition data is the limiting step, since the INCO Regulation does not make it mandatory to provide on the labelling all the data needed for applying the two algorithms. Thus, apart from the food producer, which will have determined all these necessary data, it will not be possible to determine the food class solely from the data available on the packaging from 13 December 2016.

In addition, the Agency compared the SENS (four classes) and Modified 5-C (five classes) systems and demonstrated their overall concordance and the limited differences between them. The two systems especially concurred with regard to extreme foods: those classified very favourably by one system usually have a similar classification in the other. Likewise, the foods assigned to an unfavourable class by one system are generally also categorised poorly in the other system.

The findings of ANSES's work will be supplemented by a comparative analysis of the relevance of these two systems, in nutrition terms, in light of the public health issues. This analysis will be provided by the Agency in the framework of a collective expert appraisal, whose results are expected in the coming autumn.