I’ve been seeing billboards around town advertising NuVal, a new food rating system for grocery stores. Joshua and I looked up what exactly NuVal is and then a couple of days later happened to shop at a grocery store using the system. There are some things that seem really positive about the NuVal system and also things that make me hopping mad.
What Is NuVal?
NuVal is a nutritional scoring system designed to condense the nutrition information of foods into one simple number between 1 and 100. The higher the number, the better the nutrition. The system doesn’t require the participation of food manufacturers. The nutritional information is taken off the packaging (and other readily available widely accepted sources), and the NuVal number is then printed on the grocery store shelf tag.
So far, NuVal is only available at some smaller grocery stores like Market Street, Festival Foods, and Price Chopper. I found the system in use at a Food City.
Of course, the biggest question is how they do the scoring. Right now, I’m a pregnant woman focused on eating low carb/sugar. This means the amount of fat or sodium in a food matters very little to me, but the amount of carbohydrates matters a lot. Knowing how they calculate the scores is crucial for me.
Basically, NuVal scores the “good nutrients”, then divides that number by the score of “bad nutrients”. Good nutrients include fiber, several vitamins, potassium, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, total bioflavonoids, iron, and more. Bad nutrients are saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol.
In addition to this basic division of good/bad, the system also weights the numbers based on other factors:
- When a nutrient has a strong association with a specific health condition (like trans fat to heart disease) the score is more weighted for that nutrient.
- Fat, protein, and carbs are judged on their “quality” (such as using glycemic load to judge carbs) and their score weighted accordingly.
- When a food is nutritionally dense – it has lots of vitamins and minerals but few calories – it gets extra credit.
The NuVal website points out some potential limitations to their system. They state that NuVal can only measure “nutritiousness” and nothing else.
This means that NuVal can’t measure things like toxins, bacteria, or other measures of food safety. It can also not take into account things like whether or not the food is organic or local. And of course, whether or not the food is yummy is not in the equation!
Also, a formula can only take into account the factors that are designed into the system. For example, according to this ABC article, V8 Splash Diet Berry Blend scores 57, while Ocean Spray Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail scores only 2, because the V8 Splash has less sugar and calories and more potassium and vitamins than the cranberry juice. Ocean Spray commented for the article stating that NuVal only takes into account the “traditionally recognized nutrients found on the Nutrition Facts Panel” and not, say, the “polyphenols found in cranberry that are responsible for its urinary tract health benefits”.
My Initial Impression
After reading about these kinds of things on the NuVal website – how they come up with the number and some examples of scores, I was initially not too critical. It sounds like they’re taking in a lot of different factors – relatively non-controversial ones – and working those factors into an easily understandable number.
The original billboard I saw for NuVal showed an orange scoring 100. While I think it’s kind of stupid to need a system to tell you that an orange is good for you, I can see the benefit of having an equation that helps you choose between different processed foods.
However a few glaring problems do come to mind.
Gaming the System
Joshua pointed out that the NuVal system might only be beneficial right now. After the system gets more widely accepted, manufacturers may being to game the system. If vitamins are good and trans fats are bad, can you just stuff a bunch of vitamins into your trans-fatty food and bump your score? If manufacturers do that, does that actually mean that your food choices have gotten better?
For example, Pop-Tarts range from scores of 5 to 11. On the other hand, the comparable Fiber One product scored 24, presumably helped out by the extra fiber. Is this a good thing? Does this mean that choosing Fiber One is a better choice?
These questions lead to one of my biggest suspicions about this system…
Keeping You Engaged
It seems to me like there’s a pretty big push for changes in our food system these days. Countless books and movies are questioning our food system and whether it’s good for the people and animals caught up in it. From Fast Food Nation to anything by Michael Pollan to movies like Food Inc, it’s easy to run into questions about the whole thing. There’s the push for organic. For local. For raw. For “whole” foods. For “real” food. All of these things contain attacks on processed food and reasons for people to look elsewhere.
On the other hand, the NuVal system whispers in response, “It’s okay. We’ll tell you which processed foods are okay.” If you’re concerned about the healthfulness of your food, NuVal allows you stay involved with the highly processed choices. NuVal says, “Here. Buy Fiber One instead of Pop-Tarts.” But neither of those choices is as good as having oatmeal and an apple for breakfast instead. Yes, oatmeal and apples are over in their own aisles with scores of 91 and 96 respectively, but that doesn’t change the thoughts you have when you’re looking at the Pop-Tart selection.
If manufactures begin to the game the NuVal system by pumping their products full of “good nutrients”, I worry that this will prolong consumers’ ability to stay engaged with a damaging food system, rather than demanding changes.
On the other hand, Joshua pointed out that there’s the issue of harm reduction in the mix, as well. As long as people are buying processed foods, perhaps it’s a good thing if manufacturers are encouraged to increase the nutritiousness of those products.
These different issues – whether companies can game the system, whether a food is healthier if it’s pumped full of vitamins, whether processed grocery store food is good for you at all – brings up the issue of nutritionism.
“… food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by ‘nutrients,’ … new terms like ‘fiber’ and ‘cholesterol’ and ‘saturated fat’ rose to large-type prominence … eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.”
Whether nutritionism actually serves to make us healthier (or just serves to make packaged foods more attractive) is in serious debate. And I could devote perhaps an entire post to exploring the risks of seeing foods only as their tiny parts (and only the ones we’ve identified and named).
Suffice it to say, for now, that my issue with nutritionism (and therefore the basis of the NuVal system) can be summed up with this quote from the green fork:
“Packaged, processed ‘food-like substances’ containing long lists of gobbledy-gook ingredients will never form the basis of a healthy diet, regardless of whether they’ve been ‘enhanced’ with fiber, or omega 3 fatty acids, or antioxidants.”
NuVal advertising contains a lot of images like this one:
If your diet looks like that, you’re already eating well, and you don’t need a system to prove it to you!
In the Grocery Store
So all of these ideas were floating around in my head. Possible benefits to NuVal. Possible drawbacks. Some ideological quibbles. Then I actually went shopping at a grocery store with the NuVal system in place.
Blueberries score a 100, passion fruit a 78. The extra calories in passion fruit notwithstanding, as I said in Nutrition Advice Gone Awry, “Anyone who tells you to eat fewer carrots and apples is just making shit up.” Apples and carrots themselves might score high in the NuVal system, but it’s still a system that pits fruits and veggies against one another, and I question the usefulness of that.
Then I started noticing that some basic staples of cooking had extremely low numbers. Butter? A score of one. Olive oil? Also a one. So, fuck that. When butter – a perfectly fine food to add to a meal – gets a lower score than horrible things that might be the whole meal (like a Pop-Tart), something is wrong with the system.
On the other hand, I did like the eye-opener of seeing processed foods I think of as healthy (like cereal) down in the 20s range. Or seeing foods sitting side-by-side – one in a cartoon motif that screams sugar and one in an yoga-aesthetic that screams “pick me! I’m healthy!” – and each getting the same score.
NuVal might be beneficial in choosing between different brands of processed foods. If you’re determined to eat Pop-Tarts while still doing the best you can nutritionally, then NuVal can help make that distinction. Of course, someone else’s system can never mirror your own values. My dietary needs right now involve limiting sugar while upping fat, protein, and salt. This means if I’m going to eat cereal, Cheerios is an excellent choice me, even though it gets a lower score than some other cereals that have more sugar but less sodium.
And while NuVal might help within a category or have entertainment value (it makes it like a game to hunt for different scores!) I don’t think it can ever replace a real philosophy of food or make a dramatic improvement in the health of a food system that’s already pretty messed up.
Have you seen NuVal in your grocery store? What do you think of it?