Sunday, May 1, 2011

Eat by numbers.

Nutrition has been making the news a lot lately, and for good reason. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are becoming increasingly prevalent. The rise in childhood obesity is especially disturbing. According to the Center for Weight and Health in Berkeley, 11% of California’s children are obese – defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 95th percentile or higher. Over 30% of adolescents in California are obese or in danger of becoming obese (>85th percentile).

The problems are obvious, but the solutions aren’t so clear. We know we need to get more exercise and change our diets. Unfortunately, what constitutes proper nutrition and healthy food can be difficult to discern. Marketing schemes further muddy the waters because products marketed as healthy in one respect are often quite unhealthy in another.

If we want truly healthy foods to be readily available, we have to demand them as consumers. That means we need the public to understand what foods are healthy and be able to quickly and easily evaluate foods when they shop. People may not always choose healthy options (and that’s fine), but they should be able to know what choice they are making.

Easy access to clear information is the idea behind NuVal, a new food rating system. Designed by doctors, foods are ranked using a mathematical algorithm that compares the nutritional pros and cons of many grocery store products. A food product with a rating of 1 has virtually no nutritional value; a 100 is the best score. The goal is to have the NuVal score printed alongside the price in the grocery store, giving people a clear way of determining the best product based on their nutritional and economic values.

Scores for a selection of foods are shown on NuVal’s website. Blueberries, broccoli, tomatoes, mangos, and certain brands of frozen winter squash, fat free milk, and wheat bran cereals are some of the best scoring product, with scores between 91 and 100. Unsurprisingly, crackers, cookies, and salty snacks make up most of the bottom.

What’s especially powerful about this type of labeling system is that it allows people to easy identify nutritious foods despite the creativity of food marketers. I found several healthy-sounding foods with pathetically low scores. Keebler Townhouse Bistro Multigrain crackers received a score of only 2; Cheetos at least got a 4. Kashi Strawberry Fields cereal scored an 11, beating out Cap’n Crunch by a mere 1 point. There are even a few canned vegetables that perform incredibly badly, probably due to excess sodium.

The NuVal system seems like a great idea, but it is based on one interpretation of what it means to be healthy. The current algorithm seems to follow the big picture USDA guidelines. As quoted from the USDA website, the recommended diet:

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

Over time, we may determine that the diet recommended for the USDA and adopted by NuVal is not as complete. For example, the Paleo diet has been gaining traction lately, especially in athletic communities. Pioneered by Dr. Loren Cordain, the Paleo diet recommends that we minimize our intake of fruit due to its high (albeit natural) sugar content and avoid grains and dairy, which humans have only starting eating relatively recently.

For now, though, the NuVal approach seems like a good first step. Perhaps some day, the majority of foods at the grocery store will score high on the NuVal chart, and then we can worry about further distinguishing the best options from the good options. Only a few stores have incorporated the NuVal scoring system so far. You can find the stores on their website as well as info on recommending the system to your local store.

NuVal will not be the sole solution to our nutrition problems, but it is the first system I’ve seen that could really empower consumers to make healthy choices and vote with their dollars every time they go to the store. Having the scores so prominently displayed is also likely to generate interest in nutrition issues and hopefully engage the public in the way our food system operates. And that’s a pretty high scoring outcome in my book!

1 comment:

  1. I just googled "nuval paleo" to see if anyone in the paleo community had come up with their own nutrition scoring system similar to nuval. Your blog popped up as the second search result. :)