I first noticed the NuVal scores in my HyVee grocery store about four years ago. My first reaction was the same as how I feel about government: I'm in full support of universal rules for everyone...as long as I get to make the rules!
I began to look into it a little more deeply when I found out that the scoring system was developed by David L. Katz, who does real work in obesity research and whose perspective has usually made sense to me.
The system of scoring is described in not-quite-enough detail on the NuVal website, however, there are several links to peer reviewed research that examine how this system of food labeling, based on one simple score that takes into account fat, protein, sugar, vitamins, salt, etc.. can aid consumers looking to improve their shopping choices. I am purposely not going to argue about the research, because this is supposed to be a practical test of how to use the score. Since the purpose of NuVal is to simplify shopping for health, no research should be required. In broad terms, NuVal is a ratio, with good things like protein, vitamins, fiber on the top, divided by “bad” things like sugar, salt, saturated fats on the bottom.
The result is a score ranging from 1-100. From Coke to Spinach.
I do the shopping for a family of six. The two adults are mid-forties, normal weight, don't require medications for cholesterol or blood pressure and are still able to exercise as much as desired. The four children are all healthy and happy, tend toward the skinny side of normal, not prone to infections, score well on those goofy fitness tests they do in gym class. I figured, if someone was trying to promote some sort of universal healthy food guidelines for families, my family can't be too far from the end product they are envisioning. I’m not saying we’re Olympians or anything, but we are healthy people. If food is what drives our health and fitness and NuVal can sort out "good" from "bad" food choices, our grocery cart should be a pretty good test of the NuVal system’s logic.
Note the arrogance here: A reasonable person would probably check their cart against the healthy score developed by the team of experts, which has been validated in peer reviewed studies. My thought was exactly the opposite: NuVal ought to reflect our good health. If it’s going to be worth something, it should reflect that my grocery cart fuels an active healthy family. Either the food I buy for my family is what’s needed for health, or my family is so resilient that eating poor food choices can't compromise health. Or perhaps NuVal is inaccurate.
So here are the scores for today's shopping cart:
38- Grass fed beef
57- Organic chicken breast, free range, no antibiotics
8- Krusteaz buttermilk pancake mix (just add water!)
28- Nature valley chewy protein bars
6- Pop tarts, unfrosted
93- Country Fare quick oats
23- Corn flakes
25- Life cereal
38- Quaker oats and honey granola
8- Extra virgin olive oil
29- Skippy peanut butter
64- Pep farm ancient grains bread
24- Pep farm oatmeal farmhouse bread
26- Pep farm cinnamon raisin bread
25- Athenos Feta Cheese
23- Oscar Mayer Bacon
16- Philly cream cheese
25- Cheddar sticks
33- Org Valley lactose free milk
91- Silk original soy milk
82- Org valley cow's milk, whole...Skim scores 100, but the kids say it’s watery and I agree
(Note that fat free milk is the only WIC approved choice. Hope that's the healthiest)
23- Fage Greek yogurt, 99 if fat free, we don’t buy fat free
23- for Noosa, with nutrition listed 11g fat (5 are sat) 30g carb, 14g pro, 30mg chol, 110 sodium, 28 sugars, 1g fiber. I’m at a loss for what’s wrong with this yogurt…sat fat?
47- Simply Orange, much better than a Welch’s concord grape drink which scored 2…
1- Coke, say it ain’t so!!!
3- Chips Ahoy
100- carrots, tomatoes, spinach, iceberg lettuce, bell pepper
94- for bananas, blueberries, raspberries, pineapple
32- Crisco canola oil,
2 - for butter
A straight average of these numbers yields a NuVal score of 63. I don't know what a "good" score is supposed to be, but a 63 probably isn’t it. What are we to make of this? Didn't I explain above that we are pretty healthy?
Well, you can judge a lot for yourself just by looking at the list and come to your own conclusions about what’s "healthy" and what’s not. Of course Coke and PopTarts aren't recommended foods and they are going to cancel out a couple of the positive choices (truth be told, those two go in only one big male mouth in the family).
We should give NuVal some kudos for not giving any increase in scores for bogus health implications for "organic," "grass fed," "GMO free." But what do they have against animal products generally? (Side note: I buy those particular "organic" items from experimenting and finding brands that taste best to me and my family).
If you remove the “bonus points” we get for buying the fruits and vegetables, the score is in the 30s for the rest of the cart. This may more accurately reflect how my family is actually eating, as the fruits and veggies likely account for less than 10% of what we actually consume, in terms of calories.
The idea of simply scoring the whole grocery cart is riddled with problems that are not the fault of NuVal. In fact, the folks at Nuval don’t really say that we are supposed to average our cart, that’s just something I thought of. Nevertheless, promoting a numbers-based system has got to result in using those numbers in some sort of logical fashion, including trying to find and improve one’s average. They chose to score 1-100, so they are inviting thoughts of averages and grades.
I think the following limitations need consideration: These are the foods that the family needed this week. Many items we eat are still in the fridge or the cabinet, so aren’t counted. The foods I bought will be consumed at different rates. For instance, the milk will be gone in three days, the canola oil will last for months, half of the spinach will be thrown away by Monday (it’s the truth, you know how slimy it gets). There is no weighting for how much of each food one would consume, or how they will be eaten in combination. We don’t consume individual foods (except when I do my Popeye thing). Humans consume meals. In this system, there’s no way to pair the foods we bought.
Some problems are inherent to NuVal itself: I notice that there are very specific biases in the scoring, generally reflecting traditional concepts like “fat is bad, saturated especially,” “added sugar is different from sugar in raw forms,” “avoid salt” and “cholesterol will kill you.” Fruits and vegetables (and fat free milk for some reason) are the only foods to score 100. So, the easiest way to move your cart to a better score would be to buy more of these foods. But even with an extra refrigerator to keep bushels of veggies fresh for the week, a diet scoring anywhere near 100 would have a serious problem: not enough calories to sustain life (and tremendous flatulence for some of us, but that’s a topic for another day).
The scores seem to rest very heavily on avoiding "bad" things (saturated fats, cholesterol, simple sugars) without much emphasis on putting in “good” things. In fact, aside from vitamins and fiber, I can’t actually figure out what the good things are in this system. We talk so much about avoiding obesity and diabetes that health professionals sometimes seem to forget a person actually needs energy in the food she eats, particularly if she is a growing kid on a soccer team.
Vitamins are fine, I guess, but they don’t give you energy. The 50 calories contained in a snack of two large carrot sticks isn't going to carry you through the second half. In fact, the caloric content of the food probably needs to be one of the main parameters in the numerator (perhaps it should be the numerator) if we are trying to make a ratio of the needed attributes of food.
(I forgot to check Diet Coke. Does it score 100, like iceberg lettuce, because it doesn't have anything "bad" for us in it?)
I've had my resting metabolic rate tested. I've been measured, pinched, bio-impeded and Dexa-scanned to find my body fat percent. I've logged on a score of diet trackers and input my data into a host of online tools to get recommendations. So I am pretty confident that I need around 2400 calories a day to live the way I do. It would be less healthy for me to substitute low calorie options for what I eat.
What combination of foods in the NuVal system could provide 2400 calories and give a score anywhere near the "A" range of 90 and above? Just trying to trade up on my sugars, the 280 calories I take in from coke per day would require three cups of blueberries (at a cost of about $12). You might say, "That's a good idea, you should do that. You'd be healthier." But that's not considering that I'm already eating some blueberries. They are part of the other 2100 calories I'm taking in. I don't want, nor does anyone need, three cups of berries a day. Just what, exactly, are we supposed to run on, in this system?
If you were to eat only “A” foods, scoring 90 and above, you would have a fairly limited diet. You’d be a vegetarian, for one thing. Skim-lacto, no-ovo, vegetarian. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but it’s not a universal scoring system for guiding families at HyVee!
This post was originally published on my blog: unamericandiet. It has been edited to provide 30% more snarkiness. Daily requirements for snark vary. This may not be the right amount of snarky for you, depending upon your goals.