Healthy score cards create (more) confusion

Nov 30, 2011


The constant barrage of nutrition messages is so confusing it makes me want to go on a BBQ-potato-chip bender.

So when Harvest reporter Jessica Naudziunas pitched a story on those nutritional scores in grocery stores, I listened.    

Jessica is looking at those scores you see tacked to different food products – the most popular called NuVal. If shoppers really want to make healthy choices, Jessica told me, do they make those decisions at the point of purchase?

“Grocery stores say it’s all about helping consumers choose healthier foods. But the proliferation of nutrition rating systems on food price tags over the last few years may just be adding to the confusion,” she said.

“Why is a banana considered less healthy than blueberries? And how does a 50 NuVal score on frozen organic pizza compare to a two-star Guiding Stars score?”

Good questions. And we’d like to know what you think about this.

Do you pay attention to those healthy scores in grocery stores? Click here to talk to us via the Harvest Network.

I did a little investigation of my own today (read: I stopped at the Hy-Vee grocery store in my ‘hood). I was surprised when I walked in to see large posters with NuVal comparisons hanging in every aisle.

Supposedly, the NuVal system is designed to make it easier for people to make healthy choices. So the higher the score, the healthier the food.

Broccoli gets the highest rating – 100. According to one of the posters, it keeps that perfect score whether it’s fresh or frozen – and the package of frozen broccoli was a Hy-Vee brand.

But I found myself studying the posters and getting confused – and it must have been obvious, because several clerks came up to me and asked if I was looking for something.

One poster showed that Lays potato chips get a 15 and the baked Lays gets a 24. OK, the baked version has less fat, I get that.

A box of frosted Mini-Wheats gets a 33 and unfrosted Mini-Wheats gets a 91. That’s compared to a skinless chicken breast, which got a measly 39 according to the NuVal score sheet. Really? I should eat unfrosted Mini-Wheats instead of a high-protein, low-fat grilled chicken breast?

And here’s a true head-scratcher: reduced-fat Jif gets a 7 and regular Jif a 20. Wouldn’t the lower fat product get a better rating?

Here’s a link to the science behind NuVal. I couldn’t study it too hard because I want to hit the chips again if I hear the term ‘algorithm.’

I asked for more information on the NuVal program when I was checking out and was directed over to the pharmacy. There, I was offered a NuVal brochure (“The Higher the NuVal Score, the Better the Nutrition”) and other handouts about Hy-Vee’s wellness services, which gave the name of a registered dietitian at my store.

Nutrition confusion isn’t a new topic, of course, nor are these score sheets in grocery stores. The Chicago Tribune ran a piece about it in 2009, and critics said the scores make healthy choices even harder:


Already, most labels are crowded with a nutrition facts box and an ingredient list. Consumers may also see the American Heart Association's heart-check mark, which is printed on more than 800 products rich in fiber or whole grains. Kraft, PepsiCo, Kellogg's, General Mills and Unilever all use their own healthy choice icons. Shoppers often also find questionable health claims on labels, such as the boast that a sugar-laden chocolate cereal can "help support your child's immunity" with antioxidants.

"The situation has gotten completely out of hand," said New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who believes label health claims are another way of marketing junk food. "It's not helpful for consumers, there are multiple methods [of evaluating food], and it's frighteningly confusing."

Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said consumers trying to buy healthy foods are lured in by manufacturers who accentuate a product's healthier qualities but do not mention, say, added sugar, fat or salt.

"The food industry, the nutrition community and the federalgovernment are not helping the consumer because over the decades we've changed what they should be looking for," he said. "In some ways, we need to make it simpler. Maybe we need to start with the question of, 'Is it real?'

But manufacturers and grocery stores know consumers are drawn to health claims, particularly if they appear independent. A study in Appetite, a peer-reviewed nutritional journal, found that consumers are more likely to trust nutrition symbols that are endorsed by third parties such as health organizations, and the simpler the symbol or icon, the better.”

What do you think?  Share your thoughts directly with Harvest Public Media.