Sugar-free jelly outscores eggs in ‘easy’ nutrition-rating system

Posted by
January 19, 2012

While the FDA says it is continuing to work toward establishing guidelines for “front of package” labeling (asking the Institute of Medicine for advice in the matter), industry continues to forge ahead with stars, numbers and different colored lights on packaging and shelf tags to tell us what they deem a “healthy” choice. But is this really helpful nutrition labeling or simply another way to do a sales pitch?

Teaching us how to shop is big business, even bigger, as it turns out, than I first realized. At the end of December, I told you about giant grocery retailer Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ” promotion and its shelf tag system to point out “better-for-you” choices. When I checked out some of those “better” choices, that a youtube video states will “arm you to the teeth with knowledge” I found products containing hidden MSG, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial colors as well as high fructose corn syrup, that had all received the “better-for-you” stamp of approval.

And last week I reported on Facts Up Front, an industry-funded (to the tune of $50 million) front-of- package “nutrient based labeling system” presented by the Grocery Manufactures Association and the Food Marketing Institute, which the groups claim will be hitting the shelves this year.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’m here to add to that list Guiding Stars and the NuVal “scoring system” with its claim of “nutrition made easy.”

NuVal, described as being “developed independently by a team of nutrition and medical experts,” is another shelf-tag system that rates the “nutritiousness” of foods by scoring them from 1 to 100 using a patent-pending algorithm. Despite its claim of  being “completely independent from any commercial brands or retailers” a look at its website’s “about” page reveals that NuVal is a joint venture with Topco Associates LLC – which is “the leading procurement and service cooperative for grocery retailers, wholesalers and food service distributors in the U.S.”

The NuVal concept, summarized on its website as “the higher the score, the better the nutrition,” appears to be a bizarrely flawed idea. Take this example; Polaner Sugar-Free Concord Grape Jelly (which contains sodium benzoate, artificial colors red 40 and blue 1, and the artificial sweetener Sucralose)  receives a NuVal score of 82, whereas eggs receive a score of only 33.

NuVal media contact Robert Keane, when asked how grape jelly made the grade higher than an actual food product, like eggs, told me that consumers are expected to compare “like items,” and didn’t appear to have any concerns over the fact that the higher numbers represent all that extra “nutritiousness.” He said that shoppers will use the scores the way they “purchase food” (although I’m not quite sure what he meant by that).

NuVal also offers no “nutritiousness” differentials for foods containing monosodium glutamate, artificial sweeteners and colors. In fact Keane said that if we compared two processed food items containing the exact same ingredients, the one with lower sodium but containing monosodium glutamate would score a bigger number than the higher sodium product without the MSG. The same reasoning applies for the artificial sweetener aspartame.  A Coke, which has the lowest NuVal score of one, would jump to 15 if it contained aspartame instead of a caloric sweetener.

NuVal, which according to Keane,  was created, by 13 of the “top food scientists in America,” licenses its scoring service to “retail partners,” and even has a sample letter to give your store on its website requesting that they get on board.

Stars compete with numbers

Guiding Stars, called “Nutritious choices made simple,” appears to be another variation on the theme, It uses a rating system featuring one to three big yellow stars — perhaps to appeal to those those who can’t count to the higher NuVal numbers.

Guiding Stars also has an advisory board of experts and scientists. It, too, emphasizes how “frustrating” and “confusing” it is to pick nutritious foods, and how it takes all the “guesswork” out of that tedious task.

It’s great to see that Guiding Stars gives a fresh tomato three stars and that NuVal rates broccoli at 100, but did we really need all those experts, doctors and scientific analysis to come up with that?

Hopefully most of us know that foods like potato chips aren’t of great nutritional benefit without needing a guidance system to pick a bag. If you really must have some chips, you’d be much better off to find some simple, preferably organic ones that are made without MSG, partially hydrogenated oil or artificial colors or flavors.

Author, Professor and blogger Marion Nestle was quoted in a recent USA Today article about NuVal as saying, “I think their purpose is to sell food products, if you want to encourage people to eat healthy… you want them to eat real food.”

And while NuVal’s Keane, in attempting to explain how artificial flavors and colors don’t factor in, told me that their “scores deal with the nutrition quality of food,” I still want to know how that sugar-free grape jelly scored an 82.

Linda Bonvie,