Nutritional Rating Systems: What You Need to Know
Wal-Mart stores across the nation recently introduced a unique nutritional labeling system called "Great for You," joining Guiding Stars, NuVal, ANDI score, and other non-governmental scoring programs. They all share the same goal: to create simpler labels that consumers will actually read (and hopefully make healthier selections). But the slew of different systems can actually create more confusion. Plus, there's no research to prove these labels will drive people to eat healthier.
"Are the numerical differences between one potato chip and another nutritionally meaningful? Will you be healthier if you eat crackers with higher [nutritional] scores? It might make a difference if you only eat foods with high scores, but in that case you don't need the system," says Marion Nestle, author and nutrition professor at New York University.
An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that scoring systems have the potential to enhance consumer understanding of nutritional facts, but suggest a government solution stating, "A national rather than a multiple-systems approach may be best to avoid consumer confusion arising from using different conceptual frameworks."
Rather than wait for Uncle Sam, here's a basic guide to the most common nutritional rating systems and how to use them wisely:
Safeway, one of the nation's largest chains, Wegmans, a Northeastern staple, and many other grocery stores use their own on-shelf and on-product labeling systems. These systems usually only highlight benefits and neutral descriptors such as "low-sodium," "low-fat," "gluten-free," or "vegan."
Most in-house systems can be considered more factual, lower-hyperbole versions of the claims food companies put on their packaging, i.e. "low-sodium" instead of "heart healthy."
How to use tt: If you generally go to the same store, learn their lingo and icons as way to recognize product features that matter to you. Just don't assume a product is healthy overall because the store touts some of its benefits. A low-sodium cookie is still a cookie.
Third-Party Scoring Systems: NuVal
Probably the most widespread scoring system, NuVal has worked its way into several national chains, including Kroger, the nation's second-largest. The scores are 1 to 100 and based on an algorithm that considers protein quality, sodium, fats, refined sugars, and much more.
Background: The algorithm (the Overall Nutrition Quality Index) was initially developed by scientists at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. NuVal is the algorithm's commercial face, and the company is partially owned by Topco, a private organization that is co-owned by grocery store chains, many of which are implementing NuVal scores into their stores.
How to use it: Melissa Schlenker, NuVal customer manager and mother of two, says her main use of the system is "trading up," or finding healthier alternatives for products she regularly buys within a category. "When I started looking at NuVal scores, I found out the frozen pancakes I was buying weren't very healthy, so now we buy whole-wheat pancake mix and freeze our own," Schlenker says.
Drawbacks: Like all one-size-fits-all nutritional grading, NuVal scores are generalized. For example, sodium content may be less important than sugar to someone eating low-carb, whereas sodium might be weighted much heavier for someone at risk for heart disease. Scores lose some utility when comparing across categories (haddock and chocolate soy milk score similarly, as do pork tenderloin and Cheerios), leaving customers to decide which categories of foods to choose from.
Even less nuanced than the 1-100 scoring system, foods are "good, better, or best" nutritionally with corresponding 1, 2, and 3-star ratings (zero stars are awarded to things like most cookies and represent about 75 percent of products in an average grocery store). The lack of detail means consumers have to make judgments between similar products, but reinforces what they probably already know (i.e. that Shredded Wheat is better than Count Chocula).
Background: Guiding Stars was developed by and is currently owned by Belgian grocery retail corporation Delhaize, which owns Hannaford grocery chain (and several others) in the United States. Guiding Stars has made their algorithm public and, broadly, it's very similar to NuVal: "good" nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are weighed against "bad" nutrients such as trans fats and added sugars.
How to use it: Avoid products that don't have a star rating. That means they don't meet the minimum nutritional standards to get a score. "The system is simple enough that children can follow it. A parent can tell her kids, ‘Pick out any cereal you want as long as it has two stars,'" says John Eldredge, director of brand and business development at Guiding Stars.
Drawbacks: The broad classifications don't create as many opportunities as NuVal for identifying "better" products within a category-similar products will likely have the same star rating. As with NuVal scores, the stars lose utility when comparing across categories, though both systems generally give their highest ratings to fruits and vegetables.
The Aggregate Nutrient Density Index is a 1 to 1000 rating system used in Whole Foods stores on certain products, scoring food on how many nutrients it provides per calorie. The equation is simple: add up points for various nutrients and divide by calories.
Background: The system was laid out in the book Eat for Health by Dr. Joel Fuhrman and adopted by Whole Foods. The ratings are reserved mainly for-not surprisingly-whole foods such as beans, grains, produce, and nuts.
How to use it: Like other scoring systems, ANDI is best for comparison shopping. Using the scores, you can see, for example, that you get more than double the nutrition for the calories out of a red pepper versus a tomato