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Published: Tuesday, 5/26/2009

Understanding a nutritional scoring system

There are so many different "nutritional call-outs" on food packaging that make consumers think they are picking healthy choices.

In an effort to clarify and help with purchasing decisions, Meijer grocery stores recently introduced the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System to calculate and summarize a product's nutritional information into a single score. Small tags reveal the nutritional value score for an individual product. Scores range from 1 to 100, with 100 being the most nutritious.

"It's designed for the customer to make healthier decisions," said Tina Miller, registered dietitian and Meijer Healthy Living advisor who took me on a tour of the Rossford store two weeks ago.

"Most fresh fruits and vegetables will have a higher score," she said. I saw fresh broccoli with 100 and corn-on-the-cob with 91. The broccoli is low in calories but packed with nutrients. The corn is nutrient-rich but higher in calories and hence the lower score.

The system was designed by Dr. David Katz of the Yale University/Griffin Hospital Prevention Research Center. "It is independent of Meijer," she said. "Other retailers use it. But we are the only one in Ohio and Michigan. Some stores in Pennsylvania and the East Coast are using it."

There are 8,000 scored products in Meijer stores. By this time next year, all 50,000 food products in the store will be labeled.

As with all nutritional scoring methods, you have to understand the system. And like me, you may not agree with some scoring, but you may find other scores - especially on packaged convenience foods - informative.

"Scores on meat are lower than produce, so compare the scores in each category," she said. "Think food groups."

Walleye fillet was scored at 82; silver Atlantic salmon was scored at 87, and wild caught salmon was 82.

Meats range from 25 to 30. Pork ribs were 28 because of the level of fat, which is associated with heart disease, said the dietitian. Leaner pork chops were 31 and pork tenderloin is 35. Marbled chuckeye steak is 26 and ribeye steak is 30. Even ground turkey was ranked at 33.

"We need some protein in our diet everyday whether plant or meat sources," she says. "The scoring system is a way to look at healthier choices. So go easy on higher-fat meats."

Packaged and processed foods are analyzed based on the nutrition facts, the ingredients, and the product recipe, she said. Thus there are some surprising score disparities.

Among cookies, crackers, and snacks, there was a wide range of numbers. Fig Newtons were 23 but an off-brand was lower because of the sugar and type of fat, Ms. Miller said. Meijer brand vanilla wafers were 2; Keebler vanilla wafers were 11.

"It will encourage manufacturers to re-evaluate products to improve scores by reformulating the product," she said. "People assume a 100-calorie pack (cookie or crackers) is healthy. But it may not be." For example, 100-calorie pack Nabisco Lorna Doone was scored at 3 while Nabisco 100-pack Oreo Thin Crisp was 17. Voortman Lemon Wafers with trans fats was 25.

Not part of the equation was organic, natural, GMO-free, and artificial colors, all of which I consider very important. "That becomes a personal choice," she said.

Whole wheat breads with more whole grains will have a higher score. "The amount of refined flour will pull the number down," she said.

Cereals range from 2 to 100 but most were in the 20 to 30 range. "The Nu-Val team set limits on how many points a food product will get with added vitamins and minerals," said the dietitian. "(Companies) can't over fortify a food to get a higher score."

Interestingly, regular peanut butter gets a higher score than low-fat peanut butter because when you remove something like fat, the manufacturer adds something for flavor like sugar and salt.

Just because antioxidants are listed on the label, doesn't make the product better. Orange juice had a score of 31 compared to pomegranate lemonade with a score of 3. Cran-raspberry juice was scored with 2. "It has a ton of sugar," she said. The Lite product made with Splenda was 20.

Here again I disagree. A Splenda product should not be ranked higher than a natural product. "There is not enough research to say that the Splenda product is not better," Ms. Miller said. "As a registered dietitian, I say that all foods fit in a healthy diet."

One final note to this fascinating tour of a supermarket: Olive oil was ranked at 11 and Canola oil with higher omega-3 fats is 24.



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