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Interviews, Musings

The NuVal System

by Nick

Last fall I wrote a review of a relatively new nutritional system called NuVal that is popping up in grocery stores across the country.

Last week, I was able to get in touch with the Spokesperson for NuVal, Robert Keane. We chatted for about half an hour about NuVal, how it was created, and why they believe it’s a really important system for helping guide people to more nutritious eating in America.

He was able to answer a lot of questions I had about the program.

A Simple and Reliable System

If you’ve ever tried to compare two loaves of bread in your local grocery store, you’ll be familiar with how hard it can be to nutritionally compare two similar products. One loaf might have slightly more fat, but also more fiber. One might have more sodium but not use high fructose corn syrup.

Multiply this comparison problem across the entire grocery store and you could spend hours reading nutritional labels and trying to figure out which foods are best for you.

As Mr. Keane stated, the goal of the Nuval system is “to help people find the most nutritious foods on grocery store shelves… NuVal is a simple and reliable way to compare products.”

How can one scoring system do this? The idea is fairly straightforward but the execution is pretty complicated.

A team of scientists and nutritionists led by Dr. David Katz spent years developing an algorithm that takes in the nutritional information provided on labeling and spits out a single number, from 1 to 100. That number dictates the nutritional value of that food.

So, to stick with the bread example, if one loaf has a score of 60 and one has a score of 40, you would be better off eating the loaf with a 60 score. Easy enough!

What’s in the Formula?!

One constant criticism of the Nuval system is that they will not tell you the exact algorithm they are using to calculate the scores. That single algorithm is their entire business so if they gave it away, stores wouldn’t need their help in calculating nutritional values.

I was concerned about this as well when I first starting researching NuVal, but there were three things that made me feel okay about having the algorithm remain secret.

First, they tell you what nutritional information is used in the formula and whether it contributes positively or negatively to the score. You can see it all on their website. The only thing they don’t tell is the exact weights that are given to each nutrient.

Second, if a food producer doesn’t feel like a score accurately measures their product, NuVal will walk them through the calculation so they can see exactly how they are getting the score they are getting.

Mr. Keane said that they have had “very few” complaints from companies and in some cases they’ve helped companies produce healthier products by making really simple changes.

He told me one story about a store that was getting a very low score on their frozen peas. This is strange because normally frozen vegetables have very close scores to the raw equivalent. In this case though, they were able to trace the low score back to high sodium content. The peas had a lot of salt because they were being washed in a brine solution before being frozen. The producer was able to make a simple switch and the score immediately improved.

Third, Dr. Katz gave a very strong explanation as to why this isn’t what people should be focusing on. As he stated, “The fact is, the ONQI algorithm is complex. Many people use iPads without reviewing the engineering blueprints; few are qualified to do so. Ditto for GPS systems. The ONQI is much the same. But the algorithm has been described in detail in peer-reviewed publications accessible to all. It has been made available in its entirety to research groups throughout the U.S., Canada, and the UK; to federal agencies in the US; to the Institute of Medicine; and to private entities that have requested such access.”

You could drive yourself crazy trying to prove that NuVal maybe isn’t 100% perfect, but the fact is that it has been peer-reviewed by other scientists and there’s no obvious reason why the developing team would make an algorithm that made unhealthy foods seem healthy.

A Pear Complaint

One of my favorite stories about NuVal relates to a recent complaint that the National Consumers League made against NuVal. They basically said that the system is flawed and give a few odd examples.

Here’s a quote from their complaint letter: “The FDA has specifically warned industry against encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods over vegetables and fruits. Yet, under NuVal, potato crisps score more than twice as high as canned pears in light syrup.”

In response, Dr. Katz wrote what is actually a pretty hilarious reply on The Huffington Post saying that people should be shocked to learn that canned pears in light syrup are less nutritional than potato chips.

That doesn’t mean that potato chips are great, in means that if you soak fruit in sugar, it’s no longer good for you.

So when industry leaders say, “Hey, this system downgrades foods we have been touting as healthy.” Dr. Katz’s answer is, in short, “Exactly right.”

What’s With Olive Oil?

I went through the grocery store trying to find examples of something that might be out of sorts with NuVal scores. One thing that stunned me was the rating of olive oil. It was noticeably lower than canola oil even though we are always told that olive oil is the healthiest oil you should be using.

Here was NuVal’s response when I asked them about this specific scoring.

“Olive oil is a very good choice of oils for a lot of reasons; it is high in mono-unsaturated fats, low in saturated fat, trans fat free etc. However, canola oil has a better overall nutrition profile compared to olive oil. It is notably higher in omega-3s. Oils and fats are scored based on a number of factors including their total fat to saturated fat ratio, mono-unsaturated fats, poly-unsaturated fats, trans fats and omega-3s.”

Interesting, but I’ll probably keep using olive oil!

What Does NuVal Leave out?

There are some notable things that NuVal leaves out of its calculations. It doesn’t factor in organic food or genetically modified foods. It doesn’t factor in growing conditions of foods or anything like that.

In short, it doesn’t do this either because there are no proven health benefits (or disadvantages) or because it’s impossible to find out the information reliably.

To summarize Mr. Keane when I asked him about this, he said that NuVal measures nutrition first and foremost. “We don’t measure pesticides, or GMO or organic. People buy organic foods for good reasons and we applaud those reasons. But, an organic apple has the same fiber as a non-organic apple so they will get the same NuVal rating.”

To be honest, this doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think that it’s perfect, but the goal of the system is to make nutrition easier for people and all of these outside things can really cloud calculations.

In short, they advise you to buy organic, if that’s important to you, but just pick the organic products with the highest NuVal rating.

Makes sense to me.

 The Future of NuVal

I asked Mr. Keane if they had any plans to make it easier to access NuVal scores. Right now they are just in stores, but I was curious if they had any plans for NuVal cookbooks or other products that would use the ratings.

He was a bit secretive about future plans, but did say that their goal was to reach more people and that those efforts “could be in print, could be online, or could be app-based. We are excited for what’s coming.”

An app could be pretty cool…

My Thoughts on NuVal

Some people are being super-critical of this rating system, but honestly I think it is a huge step in the right direction. It gives consumers a simple way to gauge nutrition in products. It’s not perfect, but they are constantly tweaking the formula to improve it.

You can check out if stores near you offer the NuVal rating system on the NuVal website.

Have you seen the NuVal ratings in your local grocery stores? What are your thoughts on it?