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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A new weapon in the war on weight

Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune Updated: June 29, 2011 - 6:01 AM

Nutrition scores hit the shelves of some Minnesota supermarkets.

In the past, Jodi Rohe says, she wouldn't have hesitated to buy a box of Total cereal when shopping for her family. Now, the number on the grocery shelf gives her pause.

Not the price. The nutrition score.

In the case of Total, only 29 out of a possible 100 points.

Since October, Coborn's supermarkets in the St. Cloud area have been rating the nutritional content of thousands of food items and posting the scores next to the prices. They use a system called NuVal, developed by a Yale doctor and a team of nutrition experts, to grade foods, snacks and drinks on a scale of 1 (least nutritious) to 100 (think spinach and blueberries).

"We're not in the business of telling [consumers] what to buy,'' said Bob Thueringer, the chief operating officer at Coborn's, who noted that the chain has not eliminated any products from its shelves.

But, he said, he realized that the grocery industry can play a role in the nation's health -- especially the fight against obesity -- by sharing more information with consumers. "Here, we have a chance to be a leader," he said.

Already, there's some evidence that NuVal is influencing customers' choices, particularly in types of pastas and yogurts, according to a Coborn's survey. If that continues, and consumers shift to more nutritious items, Thueringer said, "it will cause a ripple effect throughout the whole food chain."

Low-fat may also be low score

Some of the scores can be surprising.

A can of Health Valley fat-free broth, in the organic section, rates only a 5. Reduced-fat Jif peanut butter is a 7 -- while full-strength Jif gets a 23. (That's partly because the system subtracts points for ingredients such as sugar, salt and saturated fat.) Yogurt, meanwhile, can run from 11 to 100.

The goal of the scores is simplicity, said Rohe, who runs a community anti-obesity effort called Better Living: Exercise and Nutrition Daily (BLEND) for the CentraCare Health Foundation in St. Cloud.

Even if you study traditional product labels, she said, it can be difficult to figure out which bread or pasta sauce is the best overall, nutritionally speaking. One might have more sodium, another more sugar -- even if they're sold as health foods. NuVal ratings boil all the ingredients down to a single number, she said, making it "easier for consumers to make healthy choices."

The scores were the brainchild of Dr. David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center. It took him and a panel of national experts two years to perfect the formula, crunching numbers for more than 30 nutritional ingredients, according to Robert Keane, a spokesman for NuVal, which is based in Braintree, Mass.

The overall nutrition score, as Rohe puts it, "is kind of the good divided by the bad."

Since its debut two years ago, the NuVal system has appeared in 13 grocery chains with more than 1,000 stores, including Coborn's and Hy-Vee in Minnesota. They pay NuVal a fee to use the system.

Coborn's decided to adopt the ratings last fall at eight St. Cloud-area stores as part of the BLEND community project; and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota kicked in some money to help promote it.

Thueringer says the program has gone so well that the NuVal scores will be in all 28 Coborn's stores by the end of the year.

'It does the math for me'

Kelly Radi, who lives in Sartell, Minn., jokingly calls herself an unpaid "spokesmom" for the program. Her family has struggled with weight issues, she said, and "this is one way to keep it in check."

Radi admits she was stunned when she first saw the scores on some of her favorite foods. "I was always label shopping," she said. If it said "low-fat" or "fat-free," she bought it. She stopped buying reduced-fat peanut butter, though, when she saw the scores were in the single digits.

"This, to me, makes it easy," Radi said. "It does the math for me."

Not everyone, though, is so intrigued. On a recent afternoon, an informal survey of shoppers at Coborn's in Sauk Rapids found only a few who knew about or gave much thought to the NuVal scores.

"I've seen it advertised, but I don't pay attention to it," said one woman in the yogurt section.

Said another: "I've been out of work for a while, so I'm looking for the lowest prices."

But Janice Putnam of Sartell said she does notice the ratings.

"I've been glad to find that I'm already buying most of the stuff that has the highest numbers," she said. "It's just a little backup."

Use with care

Some nutritionists, though, say the ratings should be read cautiously. "The concern is people could say: 'I could eat as much of this as I want because it has a perfect score,'" said Lisa Harnack, a professor and director of the nutrition coordinating center at the University of Minnesota. "You can wind up with a really imbalanced diet."

Plus, she said, the key to obesity is to eat less.

"The score, in and of itself, isn't going to lead to that."

It also has critics in the food industry. General Mills, which makes Total, says the scores can be baffling. "It demonstrates the problem with NuVal," said company spokeswoman Kirstie Foster, when asked about Total's score of 29.

"No one knows why any particular product receives a particular rating -- and NuVal won't say because it is a for-profit rating system." Foster said it's better to read the actual label to get the full story.

But Rohe said the scoring system has credibility in part because it "wasn't pushed by any manufacturer" and is based on science.

She says the goal is not to buy only products with perfect scores but to "trade up" when possible -- for example, from one brand of pasta to another.

Sometimes, however, even fans don't want to know the score. Radi recalled a conversation in the cookie aisle when one of her daughters said: "Just don't tell me the NuVal number on this one, Mom, because I'm having it."

Rohe said she had a similar talk with her own daughter. "Do you remember when we could shop before NuVal, we could buy whatever we want?" the girl asked.

"I do," Rohe replied. "But I don't want to go back."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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