Group asks FDA to set nutrition rating standards


Issue Date: May 16, 2012
By Christine Souza
Supermarket price placards show brownie mix earning a ‘22’ rating from the NuVal rating system, above, whereas canned peaches receive a ‘7.’ The National Consumers League wants the FDA to set standards for nutritional ratings.
Supermarket price placards show brownie mix earning a ‘22’ rating from the NuVal rating system, whereas canned peaches receive a ‘7,’ above. The National Consumers League wants the FDA to set standards for nutritional ratings.

To make it easier for customers to determine a product's nutritional value, many grocery stores and supermarkets across the U.S. have implemented nutritional scoring systems. But one of the largest such systems got a failing grade last week, after a consumer advocacy group—the National Consumers League—filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration saying the agency needs to step in and set industry-wide standards.

The group singled out the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System, which scores foods on a scale of 1-100 and is used in 1,600 stores nationwide, including in California. The National Consumers League pointed out that NuVal assigns higher nutritional ratings to Doritos Tortilla Chips and Ghirardelli Carmel Turtle Chocolate Brownie Mix than to canned peaches or mandarin oranges.

National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg said in a news release, "the NuVal rating system is fatally flawed and should be discarded. Its algorithmic formula, which is not transparent to consumers or the scientific community, results in snack chips, soft drinks and desserts being given as high or higher nutritional scores than some canned fruits and vegetables. NuVal's so-called nutritional ratings are a travesty that confuse, rather than enlighten, consumers."

Rich Hudgins, president and CEO of the California Canning Peach Association, called the NuVal system confusing for consumers.

"Our California peach growers are very concerned about the mixed messages being sent to consumers as a result of flawed nutrition ranking systems like NuVal. NuVal's rankings encourage consumers to eat snacks and desserts over fruits and vegetables, which runs counter to the (U.S. Department of Agriculture's) own Dietary Guidelines for Americans that call for increased fruit and vegetable consumption," Hudgins said.

Hudgins also asked the FDA "to establish a uniform, industry-wide approach to providing consumers with additional nutrition information."

In its May 10 letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the National Consumers League said the NuVal system encourages customers to choose highly processed foods over canned fruits and vegetables, has the potential to mislead consumers and is inconsistent with the school lunch program.

The chief science officer for NuVal, David Katz, reacted sharply to the criticism, saying in a statement that NuVal uses "a robust, vigorously tested, thoroughly validated, widely vetted, extensively applied and independent algorithm to determine the truth."

NuVal said its Nutritional Scoring System "converts complex nutritional information into a single, easy-to-use score by using a patent-pending algorithm."

Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, said one of the major problems with the system is its lack of transparency.

"One of the problems with this NuVal system is nobody knows how they figure everything out. They have been specifically criticized by the Institute of Medicine for their lack of transparency in their system," Bruhn said. "I value physicians and I value nutrition experts, but they are not all created equal. If this is such a good system, then let's see how you devised it and let's make sure it makes sense when it is all done."

A lack of understanding by consumers of how to decipher nutritional information on the label of products, Bruhn added, led to the development of nutrition rating systems for food. While she said it may be important to take a fresh look at the Nutrition Facts label on products, consumers also have USDA's "My Plate," which encourages people to reduce portions, increase consumption of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and reduce intake of sweet and salty foods.

"My Plate is the latest guide on how to make your diet healthy. We need to give it a try instead of these rating systems like NuVal that have significant errors and misconceptions," Bruhn said. "Our take-home to health educators is to urge consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables. People have the misconception that fresh is always best. Fresh is wonderful, but so is frozen, so is canned and so is dried, and it can all contribute important nutrients."

The National Consumers League urged the FDA to take action because the NuVal system is used by supermarket chains throughout the country.

"These misleading ratings in stores nationwide call out for a response from federal regulators. We have to prevent systems like NuVal from spreading misleading nutritional information to consumers," Greenberg said. "If we don't, we're letting down the very people who need us most for nutritional advice: the parents, the seniors and the average consumers trying to get the most nutritional value for their dollar."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.