Confident home cooking
Screen shot 2011-10-03 at 10.07.34 AM

A NuVal Review

by Nick

In the last month or so I’ve noticed a new system that’s popping up in my local grocery store here in Colorado called NuVal.  The system is  in a lot of grocery stores and is supposed to make it easier to tell which items in the store are more nutritious.  So rather than reading over ingredients and nutritional panels, you can just look at this one number to determine whether or not the food you’re buying is actually good for you.

I spent about an hour poking around my local store one day, looking at various products and seeing how things stack up.

So I thought I’d share what I found with all of you and share with you how I think this system can be useful.

The Food Labeling Problem

I’ve written before about how I think food labels need to be drastically improved.  It needs to be much clearer what’s in each product and consumers should be able to see, at a glance, whether the food they are about to buy is a nutritious choice.

At first I was very skeptical that this NuVal system would accomplish this goal.  After all, it’s just one number.  Nutrition is a very complex thing and I found it hard to believe that the creators of this system could boil down all of this information into a single rating system.

Before I get too far into my review of the system itself, it’s important to know who created this thing.

The NuVal Team

Anytime you’re using a system, it’s a good idea to know who created the system.  At first, I thought that the store itself created the system so I figured it might be artificially inflating its own products.  Also, on the commercial they use Cheerios as an example, so I thought maybe it was a General Mills creation.  Turns out both are wrong.

On the NuVal site, they do an amazing job of disclosing who is in charge of creating and updating this system.  It’s great to see this kind of transparency.  The team is comprised of about a dozen very well respected nutritionists and doctors from a wide range of studies.  The funding for the project comes from the Griffin Hospital which is a non-profit community hospital in Connecticut that does affiliate teaching for the Yale School of Medicine.

In other words, it doesn’t appear that the government or any corporation has much direct influence on the system.

Geeky Math

I was most intrigued by how this team actually calculates each NuVal score.  It turns out to be a pretty complicated algorithm that accounts for around 30 nutrients – some signal a positive score and some a negative.  Besides just amounts, they also factor in quality of certain fats or proteins.  Since Trans Fats, for example, have been shown to be very bad for heart health, they actually add a coefficient multiplier to that fat when it’s in foods to make it weigh more than other negative items.

This roughly made sense to me, but when I was walking around the store checking various products, I found some strange results.

For example, even though they appear to be almost identical, olive oil has a score of 11 while canola oil has a score of 24.  Both scores are low, because it’s all fat, but after looking at it closer, the difference appears to be because olive oil has 1g more saturated fat per serving than canola oil.

I would never recommend subbing olive oil for canola oil because of this – olive oil is just a much more flavorful oil that I don’t think can really be substituted.  But the scores did signal a difference to me between the two oils that I didn’t even realize.  In this case, it won’t change my purchasing habits, but it’s interesting.

When NuVal Isn’t Helpful

The scoring system isn’t perfect by any means and doesn’t claim to be.  There are some areas where I think the scoring system isn’t really all that useful.

Fruits and Vegetables – While the NuVal system does score fruits and vegetables, I find it meaningless.  For example, lemons are a strong 99 while limes are a 91.  Why is there a difference?  I don’t know, but it seems inconsequential to me.

So, if you’re buying fruits and vegetables, just ignore the NuVal ratings.  They are all scored over 80 and you’re probably buying healthier food than anywhere else in the store.

If you’re shopping for fruits and vegetables, buy what you like and will eat.  Don’t make decisions based on a 5 point difference on the NuVal scale.

Organics and Toxins – NuVal has no way of rating individual toxins or bacteria in food.  The rating on cantaloupes was still very high even though there’s been a lot of warning about cantaloupes since the listeria outbreak.  NuVal isn’t updating for situations like this.

Also, NuVal doesn’t factor in organic food in its ratings.  From the NuVal site regarding organics:

As yet, there is no widely validated evidence that organic foods have a higher nutritional value or greater nutrient density than food not grown organically. Obviously, consumers who choose organic foods may be doing so for reasons beyond nutrition – the fact that it is grown without using certain chemical controls, for example. If the scientific community puts forward well-vetted evidence that organic foods do, in fact, offer greater nutritional value, the NuVal™ System is designed to be able to incorporate that information into the Scores.

Personal Dietary Issues – If you have specific dietary needs, NuVal might not be as helpful.  If you’re looking for foods that are high in protein or calcium, there’s no way to know that by looking at one number.  You’ll have to do more research to see why each NuVal score is what it is.

When NuVal IS Helpful

There are a lot of areas where I think this system can be a great benefit to shoppers.

Comparing Similar Products – I was shocked to see the difference between similar products.  Different producers add a wide range of things to the same food and it would take you a long time to pour over each individual nutritional facts panel to find these differences.

For example, there was a fairly wide range of difference in scores on different kinds of beans.  It seemed like most of the score differences had to do with how much salt was added to each can.  If you’re looking for a can of black beans though, why not pick the can with the highest NuVal score?!

Breads and Cereals – If you use the scores for nothing else, I found it incredibly helpful in the bread and cereal aisles.  Both of these products are notorious for making all kinds of health claims and it’s great to see them rated on an independent scale.  I found the scores to be really helpful in these sections of the store.

As a Beginning – I’m not sure that this system is perfect, but it’s a pretty decent start.  If you’re trying to learn more about nutrition or just eat healthier, this system is worlds easier to understand than pouring over tiny print and small panels on the back of products.  So use this system and learn more as you go.

In Conclusion…

I like NuVal.  I started researching it almost sure that I was going to pan it.  But I think the system is a great start.  The team that developed it is clearly some of the best minds in their fields and they all seem to care about educating the public on making nutritious choices.  They’ve also seemed to build an algorithm that takes in a huge number of variables and is also flexible enough to be changed in the future.

I’d be curious to know if you have seen these ratings in their stores and if you’ve used them!  Leave a comment!