Nutrition scoring systems are nothing new, cropping up on price tags in grocery chains for years in the form of Guiding Stars, the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) or NuVal Scores. But until this month, these systems have been localized to specific chains—such as Whole Foods Market's ANDI scores—or regions.
Now, NuVal Scores are primed to capture a greater amount of consumer attention with its October introduction into King Soopers and City Market stores. The grocery chain joined NuVal alumni, such as Food City and Lowes Foods, to expand the NuVal system coast to coast.
"Our customers are telling us that they're looking for healthier choices every day," said Kelli McGannon, director of public affairs for Kings Soopers and City Market. "We have an environment where customers are looking for health information on food items and how to read a nutrition label." NuVal solves this dilemma by assigning a number to a food item to guide consumers toward healthier options, she said.
The grocery chain has been busy scoring items and preparing new food price tags (that include the NuVal Scores) for a few months. Anything that is not chef prepared should have a score, said McGannon.
"The reality is consumers don't understand the nutrition facts panel," said Annette Maggi, MS, RD, senior director of nutrition for NuVal. "If a product is low in fat but high in sodium, what do they do? The goal of NuVal is to synthesize all of those nutrients and what we know about public health today and factor that into the algorithm."
How NuVal works
NuVal numbers range from 1 to 100, and the higher the score, the better the nutrition. For example, Kashi TLC Oatmeal cookies score 32 while fresh broccoli scores 100 along with canned, no-salt added Del Monte Fresh French Green Beans.
How does a canned vegetable earn the same perfect score as a fresh vegetable? The answer lies in what the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System takes into account—and it's not just nutrition. The system is based on the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI), an algorithm developed by nutrition, public health and medical experts led by David L. Katz, MD, of the Yale Prevention Research Center. The ONQI quantifies more than 30 nutrients and nutrition factors such as vitamins, minerals and fiber, as well as sugar, salt and saturated fat.
A trip back to long division in grade school paints the simplest picture of the NuVal score. Nutrients with favorable effects on health are the numerators, while nutrients with unfavorable effects are the denominators. When the two are divided, the NuVal score is produced. Other "weighting coefficients" are applied to the numbers, such as fat quality, protein quality, glycemic load and nutrient density, which all contribute to overall dietary wellness.
The system is different from ANDI, which measures nutrient density on a scale of 1 to 1000, and includes such scores as kale at 1000 while broccoli is 376. Splitting hairs among fruits and vegetables is not something NuVal is interested in, because public health shows people simply aren't eating enough as it is. This explains why fresh broccoli and canned green beans—as long as the canned version has no additives—can share the same 100 score.
Does organic fit into NuVal?
Organic is not included as a factor in the NuVal Scores because "there is no evidence-based science that foods that meet the organic standards have better overall nutritional quality," said Maggi. "For example, you take conventional apples versus organic apples: They both have 5 grams of fiber per medium-sized apple. That doesn't change because one is organic."
As organic has become more mainstream, it has moved into processed foods, which may or may not be healthy in terms of fat content. "What we recommend for the shopper interested in organic and natural is that they still shop within that category but use NuVal Scores to see which of those organic products have the best nutrition quality," said Maggi.
Many natural products do score higher than conventional products in the NuVal system, however, providing an ideal marketing opportunity for natural products manufacturers. For example, Annie's Home Grown Bite-Size Whole Wheat Bunnies Baked Snack Crackers score 25 while Nabisco Ritz Bits Cracker Sandwiches Cheese score a 2.
Are nutritional scores a panacea?
Natural retailers and natural products manufacturers collectively spend millions each year educating consumers about nutrition benefits. Could one tidy score simplify the matter too much? Or are nutritional scores in conventional groceries the ticket to a healthier nation?
"My first reaction to it is you no longer have to read labels," said Jessica Goldstein, MA, board-certified in holistic nutrition. "It's telling the general public, 'Don't do your own research, all you have to do is look at a number and you don't have to be more proactive about your health on your own.'"
Independent natural retailers, who help customers make healthy decisions daily, need not worry about the proliferation of nutrition scores. After all, the scores are usually found in large grocery stores, which can't provide the level of customer service that a local, natural retailer can.
But if conventional consumers grow used to a number and complacent about reading ingredient labels, it could give manufacturers reason to keep certain not-so-beneficial ingredients in foods that perhaps do not drastically affect their NuVal scores.
Now that NuVal is nationwide, it could appear that "one source is controlling what's healthy and what's not in the conventional supermarkets," said Goldstein. Ultimately, even if one score does not fit all, the spreading of nutrition guidance nationwide in conventional grocery stores is a positive step for our nation's health.
As Katz said in a column published in Prevention, "NuVal… is a GPS for nutrition that fulfills the promise of nutrition guidance… The nutrition guidance system nay-sayers make the classic mistake of letting perfect be the enemy of good. But it's not perfect—nothing is… But so what? I am not obligated to do what my GPS system tells me."