Monday, August 2, 2010

Keeping Score: Help at the Grocery

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the launch of a new scoring system in grocery stores developed by the company, NuVal, which worked with a panel of (reputable) nutrition and health experts to create a scoring system that can be used to evaluate the nutritional value of products. While creating a perfect scoring system isn’t going to happen, NuVal does a pretty good job. Here are a few of the reasons why we think so:

1) “Healthy” is a pretty ambiguous word these days and some food items or nutrients may be more or less beneficial depending on your goal. For example, lycopene may reduce risk of prostate cancer, but for the 50% of us (i.e. women) without a prostate, that may not be a real priority when making food choices. Despite the limitations inherent in any scoring or valuation system, NuVal is pretty good at highlighting items that would fall under the “healthy” category for just about any “health” outcome. Unlike, say, the manufacturer produced labels trying to entice me to buy sugar-laden cereals because they threw in a scoop of whole grains. For example, even though Kashi brand cereals all contain whole grains, the Strawberry Fields cereal gets a score of 11 as compared to the 7 Whole Grain Flakes that gets a 29.
2) It provides a sense of magnitude of “healthiness” (I’m starting to feel a bit like I’m diving into Colbert’s “truthiness” here, but stick with me). I think most people would accurately guess that shredded wheat (unfrosted) is “better” than cocoa whatevers, but I think seeing the difference between shredded wheat and a cereal plenty of people I know think of as being “okay” (certainly not the healthiest cereal in the aisle but not a demon either) like Life (91 vs 25) might push folks to reconsider the Life and look for a cereal with a bit more fiber. My guess is that it will also help many parents look a little closer at the items marketed to kids. There are plenty of kids yogurt products in my local grocery store with as much added sugar as a candy bar. For someone rushing through the store with a tired, hungry (and thus, cranky) kid, the single number in front of the shelf might push a healthier choice when full label reading isn’t feasible.
3) That said, I’m still intrigued by the system and curious how iceberg lettuce gets the same score as canned spinach. I think other shoppers will be too and hopefully their curiosity will get them to read the labels (does that canned spinach have added salt perhaps?)

I’m sure the NuVal system will continue to evolve and alternates are surely on the way. I can easily see someone combining the UPC reader app on my iPhone with an eating guide app. What do you think? Anyone have NuVal in their local grocery? Is a system like this helpful or do the “huh?” moments make you wonder about the whole thing? Would you rather have a topic specific rating system? Perhaps that eating guide app would let you pick your goal – cancer prevention, weight management, cardiac rehab or general health?

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