While the US government is pondering a mandatory nutritional rating system that has to be displayed on foods, supermarkets are one step ahead: they now have their offerings scored by rating companies and prominently display the results on the shelves.
This Is Good, This Not
Chances are, if you live in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah or Wyoming, you already noticed it: Local supermarket chain King Soopers just introduced a food rating system in their 143 stores in those four states. Beside the price tag, customers now find a numeric score coming from rating company NuVal, telling them how nutritional the product they are looking at supposedly is: from 1 (very bad) to 100 (excellent).
Already in August last year, Lowes Foods, with 107 stores active in North and South Carolina as well as Virginia, started using NuVal’s system. Others are sure to follow. NuVal itself currently shares the market with one more company, Guiding Stars. Together they are said to now serve 3,000 stores nation-wide.
How Do They Rate Foods?
The question is: How exactly do they rate foods? What gives a food a high rating? Standards by which the quality of foods can be measured are as wide as the ocean, ranging from “only organic is good” to “as long as it isn’t contaminated, it is fit for eating”. NuVal themselves explain it like this:
NuVal Scores summarize comprehensive nutritional information in one simple number between 1 and 100. Each NuVal Score takes into account more than just the nutrition fact panel. It considers 30-plus nutrients and nutrition factors – the good (protein, calcium, vitamins) and the not-so-good (sugar, sodium, cholesterol). And then it boils it down into a simple, easy-to-use number; a number you can trust to make better decisions about nutrition in just a few seconds.
Well, this strikes me as a bit oversimplistic, as no nutrient is per se “bad” or “good”. Let’s take the above mentioned sugar and vitamins as examples: Sugar is a simple carbohydrate and those are the body’s most important source for immediate energy. Some fruits contain quite a bit of them, which certainly doesn’t make them bad. Vitamins, on the other hand, are sprinkled so liberally over various foods during production, that some people may easily reach much more than the daily amounts deemed healthy.
Besides that, we could also imagine that NuVal’s calculation goes as follows: A food gets subtracted ten points for high fat content, but the manufacturer fortifies it with vitamins A, B, C, E and D, each worth two points on the scale. Therefore, if the food started at 70, we have 70 -10 + 10 = 70.
A Pre-Emptive Industry Measure?
Maybe I’m overly cynical. But it does stand out that supermarkets heavily invest in food rating systems – neither NuVal nor Guiding Stars do their assessments for free – just at the time when the US government works on a food rating system of its own. One that, according to the report I read, would focus on evaluating foods based on their content of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and added sugars. Although the whole concept so far is only preliminary, it to me seems to paint a more realistic picture than NuVal’s system.
It also looks very similar to a labeling system that was proposed in Europe and was heavily fought against by the food industry. The so-called “Food Traffic Light” would have labeled fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar either green (low), yellow (medium) or red (high) (PDF). Consumers polled on how useful they found this system where overwhelmingly in its favor, but after heavy lobbying from the European food industry, the EU’s parliament decided against making it obligatory on packagings.
NuVal,we should therefore mention, is a joint venture between Griffin Hospital of Derby, Connecticut, and Topco LLC, a business alliance of smaller retailers in the food industry.
Picture courtesy of “Dan4th“.