Have you ever wondered what’s inside that tasty TV dinner, instant pudding, or granola bar? How healthy, or not? Theoretically, we can learn a lot about a packaged food item just by reading its nutrition panel. Unfortunately for many of us, the nutrition information, ingredient list, and health claims on the package tend to confuse more than elucidate. As a result, consumers make misinformed purchase decisions. Several labeling initiatives have recently launched with a mission to simplify the nutrition information for consumers. (For some background, check our post about the history of food labels.)
A few days ago we reviewed the brand new Smart Choices Program. Today, a look at another front of package labeling system – NuVal (Nutritional Value Scoring System). NuVal was announced in late 2007 as ONQI (Overall Nutritional Quality Index). It is a scoring system that rates food on a scale of 1-100. The higher the score, the more nutritious the product.
The proprietary system consists of an algorithm that inputs values of over 30 different nutrients (i.e. protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and minerals), and outputting a single score. The system looks at “nutrients to encourage”, such as fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as “nutrients to avoid” such as saturated fat and sodium.
The NuVal score is displayed at the supermarket on shelf tags and aisle signage, but not on the product package itself. NuVal was supposed to launch earlier this summer with several grocery chains. After a slight delay, Hy-Vee, a midwestern chain out of Iowa, was recently announced as a partner. Price Chopper has joined in the North East. Both are limited launches though – only several stores and several product categories are offered now.
NuVal / ONQI is the brainchild of Dr. David Katz, a Professor of Public Health Practice, and a nationally recognized expert in the fields of weight control and nutrition. He was previously Director of Medical Studies in Public Health, at the Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. Katz assembled a top notch team of researchers to create the ONQI system, and it took them 2 years to do it. The grading algorithm itself has not been disclosed to the public.
NuVal LLC is a joint venture of Yale university’s Griffin Hospital and Topco Associates, a privately held cooperative of food retailers and wholesalers. Unlike “Smart Choices”, food manufacturers are not part of this initiative, although the ONQI score requires additional information from manufacturers that is not found on food labels.
1. Simplicity. Everyone can relate to a numeric score of 1-100.
2. Uniformity. A single scoring system across all products enables consumers to compare apples to oranges, literally. (not that it would make any sense – both are nutritious and tasty).
3. Depth. A NuVal score of 1-100 provides more breadth to a product’s healthfulness than a Yes/No benchmark that appears only on selected items. Assuming all products in a supermarket will carry a NuVal score, consumers will readily compare between items in a category and choose the one with highest ranking.
4. Independence. Although not mentioned explicitly, it seems that food manufacturers were not directly involved in defining the NuVal scoring algorithm. Hopefully this sets a higher rating standard, more in favor of consumers than in the interests of manufacturers.
The not so good:
1. Mystery Scoring. NuVal is not disclosing its scoring mechanism. Smart Choices posted their criteria online, and those interested can understand exactly why one product is eligible for a check mark, and the other is not. According to NuVal, its algorithm is patent pending (which means it will be published by the US patent office once it is approved). If so, why not publish it now so consumers can be confident in their choices?
2. Manufacturer Buy In. Some of the nutrients used by the NuVal algorithm do not uniformly appear on food nutrition labels (i.e. omega-3, Total bioflavanoids, vitamin B12). This means either the algorithm can’t calculate scores uniformly within a product category, or that all manufacturers need to provide additional nutrient information to NuVal, a third party. The chances for that happening are slim, especially for those already comitted to Smart Choices.
3. Retailer Buy In. What happens if best selling products in the supermarket get low scores? Will retailers willingly want to lose sales of soda pop and salty snacks because of their single digit score? Or are they betting that customers won’t care?
4. Placement. This may seem trivial, but in those supermarkets where price is displayed on the shelf instead of on the product, there are always mismatches. Put NuVal indicators on the shelves and you’ve added another level of complexity to bleary eyed associates stocking shelves at 4am. With Smart Choices, the approval seal is on the product package itself.
5. No personalization. This is an issue with Smart Choices as well. A middle aged diabetic has different dietary needs than a healthy teenager or a senior suffering from hypertension and trying to reduce sodium intake. How can a low-fat fruit yogurt have the same score for each of them? Ideally, a person would see a personalized score for each product.
The teams behind NuVal and Smart Choices have made good headway in simplifying a very complex nutrition label and boiling it down to very simple indicator for consumer decision. Both systems sport some flaws, but having them at a supermarket seems to be better than not having them at all.
As the goal of both Smart Choices and NuVal is to become a nationwide standard, it will be interesting to see how the imminent competition between the two systems will play out. Also interesting to look for are the FDA’s actions. Will the FDA choose to create some sort of uniform benchmark like the UK’s Food Standard Agency Traffic Lights?
What do you think? Comments below.