The Problem with Supervalu’s NutritionIQ Rating Program (Now at Cub Foods Too)

Confused by nutrition labels and ingredient lists?

You’re not alone. Despite the best intentions of the FDA’s nutrition labeling regulations, most consumers still can’t reasonably compare two similar products for their nutrition parameters. There are just too many variables – calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, calcium, vitamin this , and mineral that.

Over the course of the past few years, manufacturers and retailers saw this confusion as an opportunity to provide simplified information that would help their customers buy better-for-you foods. More accurately, they saw this as an opportunity to gain a marketing edge.

What started out as one or two front of package labels, has turned into a cacophony of labeling schemes from almost all the players in the food industry.

It was no surprise then, that Supervalu, the third largest food retailer and distributor in the US, introduced a proprietary nutrition rating program, NutritionIQ, earlier this year. It was first deployed at Albertsons stores in January.

Now the food giant is expanding the program to 73 Cub Foods retail locations, mostly in Minnesota.

According to Supervalu,  preliminary data from Albertsons suggests that the program has helped consumers purchase better-for-you foods.

Further launches are expected this year at Supervalu chains: Acme, bigg’s, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Shaw’s / Star Market, Shop ‘n Save, Shoppers Food & Pharmacy.

What you need to know:

NutritionIQ was developed by dietitians working for Supervalu together with professionals from the Joslin Diabetes Center.

The system is based on shelf tags that call out the top one or two nutritional benefits of each qualified item throughout the store, for example (high in fiber, low sodium, etc..). The system does not point out the negative aspects of a product though. To be fair, some product categories are automatically excluded, such as soft drinks, cookies, ice cream, and baby food.

The problem with NutritionIQ, like many other rating programs, is an inherent conflict of interests between increasing shareholder value on one hand, and improving people’s health on the other. Here’s the reason:

Supervalu’s shareholders want to see growth in sales and profits each quarter. This means selling more products at higher margins. The most profitable products are the most processed ones (There’s just so much you can do to mark up a banana or tomato). But a banana flavored snack, or a tomato sauce are a different ball game – you can upcharge for selling a processed, packaged good.

And so the supermarket is laid out for shoppers to buy as many boxes, cans, and bags of  “foodlike” products as possible.

However, in order to eat healthily, as any dietitian will tell you, you need to focus on more fruits and vegetables, unprocessed foods, and as little snacks and sweets as you are humanly capable of. This is not in line with the food industry’s need to sell you more stuff, not less. There will never be a shelf tag telling you a product is not nutritious (and there are a lot of non healthy products out there).

That’s our beef with NutritionIQ, Smart Choices, Guiding Stars, and the many other programs out there.

The only system that is not currently being sponsored by food manufacturers or retailers is called NuVal, but they keep their nutrition rating considerations a secret for some reason.

What to do at the supermarket:

Don’t let the nutrition rating labels blind you. Take a look at the ingredient lists and the full nutrition panel as well. Spend some time in advance learning the basics (by subscribing to this blog, for example). And stick to a few basic ground rules:

1. More fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen), lean dairy, lean meats, 100% whole grains.

2. Less sugary foods, artificial colorings, sodium laden foods

3. Keep out of danger aisles (sweets, snacks, highly processed TV dinners, soft drinks)

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  • Quinadal

    Why would we want to add 100% grains, low fat dairy and lean meats to a healthy diet of NO grains, very little dairy (but ALWAYS full fat) and fatty meats? Grains are unhealthy and saturated fat and cholesterol are VERY healthy.

  • Robert Keane from NuVal

    For what it’s worth, NuVal’s nutrition ratings considerations are not a secret. While the algorithm used to determine NuVal scores is proprietary, we give consumers a detailed description of what we look at when rating a food or beverage. The link below gives a comprehensive look at how NuVal scores are generated:

    Hope this helps,

    Robert Keane

    • staff

      Robert thanks for the response. The web page on your site does describe in general terms how the NuVal algorithm works, but it does not describe the exact formula. Smart Choices, though backed by the food industry, has a very precise description of their benchmark grading system:
      Consumers would surely feel more confident with NuVal if the full algorithm would be open for public inspection and not just a few distinguished members of the medical and nutrition community. (Oh, and participating grocers too?).

  • giantslor

    NutritionIQ and some of these others are just cherry picking good aspects of the food and presenting them to confuse the consumer into thinking the food item is on balance good. This is totally bogus and contemptible, but not surprising.