National Consumers League (NCL), a nonprofit consumer group, has sent a complaint to the Food and Drug Administration, arguing that the NuVal nutritional ranking system is “misleading” and ought to be scrapped.
NCL maintains that the FDA should step in and establish an industry-wide nutritional scoring system.
The consumer group points out that while the FDA wrote the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute in 2011 setting conditions for use of the trade associations’ new “Facts up Front” labeling program, it’s taken no stance on NuVal.
NuVal, now used in some 1,600 stores across the country, rates products’ nutritional value on a scale from 1 to 100 (the higher the score, the more nutritious the food). Chains currently using NuVal include Kroger, Meijer, HyVee, Giant Eagle, Raley’s, King Soopers, Tops, Big Y and Price Chopper, among others.
NCL charges that NuVal’s scoring system is “fatally flawed” and serves to confuse rather than enlighten consumers. It notes, for example, that NuVal scores Doritos Tortilla Chips and Ghirardelli Carmel Turtle Chocolate Brownie Mix higher than canned peaches or mandarin oranges. The group also charges that NuVal’s algorithmic formula “is not transparent to consumers or the scientific community.”
In a rebuttal published in the Huffington Post, David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center and chief science officer for NuVal, LLC, who directed the team that developed the algorithm, pointed out that the algorithm has been described in detail in peer-reviewed publications accessible to all.
“It has been made available in its entirety to research groups throughout the U.S., Canada, and the UK; to
federal agencies in the U.S.; to the Institute of Medicine; and to private entities that have requested such access,” he wrote. “It's odd, if the NCL's motives are pure, that they didn't
ask to review the algorithm -- they just assumed, because it wasn't on a billboard, that they couldn't,” Katz added.
As for the NCL’s observation that many of NuVal’s scores are “mind-boggling,” Katz agrees in full.
“It is, indeed, mind-boggling” -- but true, he writes, “that marinara sauce and salad dressings may contain more added sugar than many desserts … that canned fruits can be so highly processed and stripped of nutrients that while they still get to be called by the original name, they bear no real nutritional resemblance to the "pure" food from which they are derived … that canned vegetables may be a can of brine, with essence of vegetable … that "multigrain" breads may contain little, or even no, whole grain.”
“The simple fact is, when you have been fed a steady diet of marketing propaganda, the objective truth is so unfamiliar as to boggle the mind,” Katz continues. “It's not the scores that are the travesty; it's some of the products being scored…And if our federal agencies are inclined to condone such industry shenanigans, that is mind-boggling, too.”