NuVal scores food based on nutrition in King Soopers and provides some surprises

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For anyone who has ever spent too much time in the grocery store, wrinkling their foreheads while reading ingredient lists and pondering the nutritional benefits of calcium sorbate or xanthan gum, NuVal is designed to help. The nutritional rating system scores most food on a 1-100 scale -- and the higher the score, the more nutritious the food. The NuVal system, introduced in January 2009, was rolled out at King Soopers stores last year.

How a frozen pancake and sausage on a stick receives a score higher than two is beyond me (it scored a ten), but most of the system seems well reasoned. The rating is based on the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI), an algorithm created by a panel of twelve accomplished minds in the field of nutritional science. Creating the ONQI was a two-year process of testing and tinkering.

"Basically, the way scores are calculated, we look at thirty different nutrients -- both that are considered good and not so good -- to get a score," says Robert Keane, spokesman for NuVal. "To put it simply, we would divide the numerator, which is the good things, such as vitamins and fiber and things of that nature, by the bad things, such as sugar, fat, trans fat, cholesterol and things of that nature. That equation roughly gives you the NuVal score."

The good things, or numerator nutrients, as NuVal calls them, include an array of vitamins and nutrients, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids, bioflavanoids and carotenoids. Protein and fat quality, glycemic load and energy density are also taken into account.

But the NuVal system is primarily designed for people who don't want to think about all that -- or who don't have the knowledge or patience to sift through an ingredient list.

"They look at these boxes and packages and have no idea what to get," says Keane. "One says it has more fiber, but it has more sugar or more salt. Another will have less salt, but it has more fat. They need something to give some sort of baseline to measure against to tell them what is the most nutritious choice. That's really where the NuVal system excels."

NuVal doesn't take marketing gimmicks into account, and can help blow up traditional wisdom that is not so wise. For example, Kashi cereals have carved out a niche as the new-age answer for healthy cereal, but its Strawberry Fields receives a candy-esque rating of eleven, and its 7 Whole Grain Flakes earns a 29. For comparison, Lucky Charms scores 25, and good old-fashioned Quaker Oats beats them all by miles at 91.

The cereal aisle is full of surprises, too. The traditionally heralded Grape Nuts receives a 31 right next to Malt-O-Meal's version of frosted mini-wheats, which garner a 35. Keane notes that both cereals are high in fiber and are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but Grape Nuts contains 290 mg of sodium per half cup while the mini-wheats have only 10 mg per cup. The mini-wheats are higher in sugar, but not so much that it negates the difference in sodium.

Another commonly held perception is that real food is typically more nutritious than its imitation versions. But NuVal claims that's not always the case. McCormick imitation bacon bits, while having the consistency and taste of plastic, earn a 27, but Oscar Mayer's real bacon bits top out at 8. The imitation bacon and its disturbingly neon color have a healthier fat profile and more protein than the real thing, according to Keane.

If someone were to aimlessly wander around the grocery store with a notepad and jot down NuVal scores, as I did, he might be confounded by some of the seemingly illogical comparisons. For example, a Weight Watchers Giant Fudge Bar, scoring 35, is roughly the nutritional equivalent of organic skinless chicken breast (39) or ground turkey (33), according to NuVal.

But Keane warns against comparing across food categories.

"The way the system is set up is basically to make sure you have the best comparison of vitamins in a particular category," he says. "Just as someone wouldn't come to buy something for dinner with the thought of, 'Should I have ice cream or poultry for my entree?' neither does the system work that way. It works the way people shop for food, by comparing like items in a category."

Serving sizes of chicken breast and ice cream are not likely to be similar, making it harder to compare calories, fat content or sodium levels in a useful manner. So while it seems perplexing, Keane urges us not to spend too much time trying to figure out why frozen breaded cheese sticks and 100 percent blueberry juice both earn a 23.

Another interesting note is that NuVal gives frozen and canned vegetables the same score as fresh vegetables, as long as they are flash-frozen and don't have any added sodium, fat or sauce. A general scanning of the scores will tell you what you hopefully already know: The most nutritious foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and high-quality protein.

It's too early to tell if the NuVal system is changing consumer habits, Keane says. Perhaps shoppers are simply picking the slightly healthier of two unhealthy options. Is choosing the cookies that score 12 rather than 10 without even thinking about the blueberries progress? Maybe not, but NuVal believes it has created a simple, reliable system that does a lot of the thinking for consumers.

"Many people won't read the labels -- or a lot of people will read the labels, but they'll get confused by them," says Keane. "So you have the NuVal system in place to try and help cut through the clutter and get them some nutritional guides they can use."

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