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Can a Food's Nutrition be 'Improved?'

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NuVal, a nutritional scoring system developed by nutrition and medical experts, recently released a slideshow of ten "new and improved" foods that had improved their nutritional score—but are any of these "improved" foods really healthy?

The NuVal system rates foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on more than 30 nutritional characteristics. So, for example, while sweetened applesauce might have a score of 4, a whole apple would have a score of 96.

The scores are printed on the shelf tags at more than 1,600 participating grocery stores, the idea being that they can easily provide a way for consumers to compare, well, apples to applesauce, as the case may be. Critics have complained that NuVal does not make the algorythm that decides the scores public, and that some ratings seem arbitrary, citing a can of mandarin organge slices in lite syrup that received a score of 7, while a can of diet cola received a score of 15 (making the soda nominally "healthier").

Dr. David Katz, the celebrity face of the experts behind the scores answered this NuVal criticism, “The truth is, some of what passes as ‘canned fruit’ is really a more concentrated dose of added sugar than many candies. Consumers may not realize that. [...] But NuVal is not fooled by what's on the cover. It ALWAYS reads the fine print. It's always ready to take on the devil in the details, so you don't have to.”

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From the Organic Authority Files

So far, so good. Educating consumers to nutrition pitfalls like hidden added sugars is a great service.

But recently, on the NuVal website, they released a slideshow of ten products that had improved their formulation to earn a higher score. The slide show included Doritos Nacho Cheese Chips, which went from a score of 6 to a score of 16 by removing partially hydrogenated fats and decreasing saturated fat; and Blue Bunny Low Fat Ice Cream Sandwiches, which went from a score of 10 to a score of 20 by decreasing the saturated fat.

The implication is that these 10 foods are now healthier because they added fiber, added vitamins and minerals, or decreased sugars and saturated fats, but NuVal doesn't address chemical additives, organic (or non-organic) ingredients, or GMOs in their formula. Many products add carbohydrates and sugars to compensate for the perceived lost taste when they reduce or eliminate fats, and many switch to liquid oils including GMO-heavy corn oil or canola oil to replace saturated fats. 

Of course, by NuVal's own system, a score of 16 or 20 is still on the low end of the nutrition scale, which is only to be expected with Doritos and ice cream sandwiches. The highest rated product in the slideshow was Yoplait Fat Free Light Blackberry Yogurt, which went from a score of 60 to a score of 82 by reducing sugar. According to NuVal, a score of 82 puts this yogurt on par nutritionally with frozen spinach, iceberg lettuce, and 1% milk—yet the yogurt contains aspartame and artificial colors, ingredients that many consumers would argue are not healthful at all.

It seems as though any foods that can be "improved" should probably be a red flag in the first place; NuVal's system, while a step in the right direction towards educating consumers, still has a way to go before receiving a high score in our books.

Photo Credit: NuVal

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