Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ” promotion offers consumers no added ‘intelligence’

Posted by
December 29, 2011

If you’re a regular reader of our Food Identity Theft blogs you should know that one of my repeated mantras is to read the ingredient labels on processed foods.

But what if there was a way to zip through the supermarket, dancing down the aisle tossing only products deemed to be “healthy” in your cart! What a time saver that would be! Shopping might even become fun again.

Thanks to giant grocery retailer Supervalu, many consumers are doing just that.

In 2009 Supervalu rolled out its own food labeling system, dubbed nutrition iQ in its Albertsons stores, which has since expanded to Jewel-Osco, Acme, Hornbacher’s and Farm Fresh Markets. Called “the better-for-you food finder” (which is a pending trademark, by the way), nutrition iQ is a “shelf tag navigation program” that uses color coded tags below products to show which ones make the “healthy” grade.

As Heidi Diller, Albertsons’ registered dietitian, explains in a Youtube video, “reading labels is important, but that takes time. If only there was an easier way to shop healthy. Let our science guide you..(to) better-for-you shopping.”

Sure sounds good! But wait, hold the phone, who exactly is making these “better-for-you” decisions anyway?

As explained on various Supervalu store sites (each with a nutrition iQ micro site), the program was developed  “in collaboration with an independent panel of dietitians from the Joslin Clinic, part of an academic medical center affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The program helps you make better-for-you choices on the spot as you shop.” Going the “mommy blogger” approval route that the Corn Refiners Association did with high fructose corn syrup last year, Supervalu also features a video with a blogger mom of three, who is so overjoyed with nutrition iQ she states “They have gone through everything in the grocery store for me,” and “I am armed to the teeth with knowledge now!”

Utilizing different colors for “nutritional attributes,” such as “low sodium,” “whole grains,” “fats,” and “vitamins,” nutrition iQ states it “was created based on dietary recommendations from FDA nutrient content claims.”

With all that academic name dropping, I took nutrition iQ for a quick spin. One of the first products I saw (also featured in the Youtube video) was Campbell’s Healthy Request Chicken Rice soup. Given the green and blue “better for you” tag for being a “healthy level sodium” and “good source vitamin A” food, I checked the ingredients.

When you can count five sources of processed free glutamic acid (MSG) as well as disodium inosinate, an expensive additive that works synergistically with MSG, and  top it off high fructose corn syrup,  all I can say is what’s in the water at the Joslin Clinic where this was tagged as a “better for you” product?

Another “healthy” soup item, Campbell’s Select Harvest Light Roasted Chicken with Italian Herbs, contains yeast extract, a hidden form of MSG, as well as numerous ingredients that are likely sources of processed free glutamic acid as well.

Then there are Kellogg’s  Apple Cinnamon Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars, made with “real fruit.” The nutrition IQ tag  below this product touts two health benefits ””low saturated fat” and “low sodium.” But a scan of the rather lengthy ingredient list on the package reveals that the product also contains high fructose corn syrup in both its crust and filling (HFCS being the first ingredient in the latter), not to mention artificial flavor and the preservative TBHQ.

A number of cereals have also been given the nutrition iQ tag.  These include General Mills’ Raisin Nut Brain, cited as a source of whole grain, but which also contains artery-clogging partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil, and Fruit Cheerios (mentioned in a blog on fruity cereals that aren’t), which is seen as a good source of fiber, but which includes three kinds of artificial colors – red 40, yellow 6 and blue 1, as well as “other color added.”

All of which isn’t to say the nutrition iQ tag hasn’t been attached to some genuinely healthy products, such as Cascadian Farms organic granola cereals,which are also cited for the “fiber” they offer, but not for the fact that they contain organic ingredients, which are free of chemical additives and pesticides.

But for the record, we’re not the only ones to find fault with the nutrition iQ program. Other critics include Jennifer McCaffrey, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Illinois Dietetic Association, who is quoted in a Bloomberg wire story as noting that processed egg products received “healthy” tags, while regular eggs did not, saying that may “lead people to believe that egg products are better than actual eggs…not necessarily the case.”

The bottom line on this promotion seems to be that whatever “intelligence” it offers is negligible, if not downright misleading – and no substitute for taking that little bit of extra time to simply read the label to determine which products are healthy and which aren’t.

FDA docket for HFCS renaming scam updated

Since we launched Food Identity Theft in September, I have been following the posted consumer comments at the FDA docket for the Corn Refiners Association petition of last year attempting to officially rebrand HFCS as “corn sugar.”

While thousands of comments have come into the FDA, the vast majority against this marketing scam, only a handful were posted online this past fall. But during the last couple weeks, the agency has been busy adding more, bringing the number of posted public submissions to 789 as of this writing. They make for quite interesting reading, and it’s good to know how many savvy consumers there are who see through this ploy. But more important, if you haven’t yet done so, you can still put your own opinion on the official record by clicking here.

Happy New Year – and let’s make 2012 the year of the consumer!