In the News: Grading Supermarket Foods

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Do you get confused by all the hype you see on products in the supermarket?

"No cholesterol," reads your bag of baby carrots. "Fat-free," boasts the sign above the broccoli. "Made with whole grains," declares your kids' favorite sugary cereal.

Of course, carrots lack cholesterol. Cholesterol is mostly found in animal fats, and barring any serious genetic manipulation, your carrots shouldn't contain animal fats. Broccoli, along the same lines, is naturally fat free. And we know that just because something is made with whole grains doesn't mean that it's good for you. (Check out the sugar content on those sweet breakfast cereals!)

So how are we supposed to know what to believe and what to write off as just a clever marketing ploy?

Soon, a quick glance at a single number could simplify the supermarket search for healthy foods.

Yale University's Griffin Prevention Research Center has developed the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, which will start to appear on supermarket shelf tags in September. These gastronomic cheat sheets assign foods a score of 1-100, based on nutrients, vitamins, sugar, salt, plus impact on blood pressure and other health concerns.

The higher the score, the more nutritious a food is. The lower the score, the worse a food is for you. If you have specific dietary concerns, the numbers won't be as helpful, but for those of us who are just trying to eat better, these numbers can help.

Broccoli, not surprisingly, tops the list with a rank of 100, along with oranges, blueberries, spinach and strawberries. Nonfat milk gets a 91, and Atlantic salmon gets an 87. Ground beef (75% lean) gets a 25, a plain bagel is a 23 and a hot dog gets a 5. Diet soda gets a 15. Regular soda gets a 1, leaving it at the bottom of the heap, along with popsicles and taffy.

Check out how some of your favorite foods measure up.

Not all supermarkets will adapt the rankings next month, but according to the Griffin Center, expect to see more stores posting info in coming months. (Tell us if you see these tags!) Talk to your supermarket manager to see whether your store will add the info to its shelf tags. The Griffin Center hopes the "NuVal" system will include 40,000 common supermarket food items (and be used in all U.S. markets) by September 2009.

For more information on the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, visit the Griffin Center website. (While you're there, take the quiz on nutrition labels!) Meanwhile, I'll be snacking on some pretzel sticks (11) and pistachios (70).

(And once we have more info on the specifics of the supermarket tags, I'll share those, too!)

Photo: from ONQI Web site

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Yikes! Taking a look at some of these ratings was really a shocker to me. I think an honest rating system of nutritional value would be a huge asset to any grocery store. People would be forced to think about the fact that most "granola bars" are no better for you than cookies and even "whole grain" cereal is still mostly sugar. My only concern is that no system like this will last long untarnished by the mighty dollar. Funding from anyone, even the government, is likely to make a huge impact on the trustworthiness of these ratings. I wish they were a little more forthcoming on their website about just who is paying for this non-profit... Report
I'm all for anything that helps! I saw the signs in the grocery store today and didn't take time to look for more information - I'll check it out the next time I shop. Report
Meijer supermarkets in Michigan have already put these signs up. I don't know if it has made a difference for most people but it has made me more aware of what I am looking for. Report
What is the rating criteria??? Who decides what foods are healthy??? Sounds to subjective to me!!! Report
Its a nice idea, but its certainly not full-proof. Should you opt for spaghetti and candy instead of spaghetti with sauce just because the candy has a lower number? I believe in good nutrition, but also in cutting calories when I can and that includes light vs regular peanutbutter even if it does have a lower rating.
It seems as though this is just another mechanism for reminding people that real fresh food is always a better option that the processed stuff. Report
Thanks for the link. It's very interesting. I had to laugh when I saw Special K Red Berries cereal scored 20 points. Can't say I am surprised but all that hype for 20 points, it's pathetic. Report
I like this idea. I'll probably still read the label and make sure there are mainly ingredents in a product I can pronounce! But still a good idea none-the -less!!! Report
The quiz isnít much of a quiz because you realize right away what to expect, but it was a real eye-opener just the same.

I spend all this time reading labels and trying to compare products and it can be really exasperating. Itís a puzzle.

And what in heck did they do to the Frosted Flakes?! Didnít they just put less frosting on the same flakes? How do you get a higher glycemic load with less sugar? Itís just freaky. I canít even imagineÖ

And how embarrassing that Special K has more sodium than corn chips! Whatís the point in eating it all? Thereís hardly any fiber. Because of the vitamins maybe? Most of us already take a multi-vitamin which has the benefit of covering far more nutrients. Doubling up on a couple of them isnít worth the cost, in cash or calories.

I need these new labels out in the stores. I surely havenít seen any yet. Where are they?
It takes me hours to grocery shop because I am a label reader....this will be a tool to help narrow down the choices BEFORE I then read the labels! Also, I agree with others in that maybe it will help busy mothers who don't read the labels in getting a handle on what they're feeding their children.....they can say, "No snacks below a 25!" Ha.... Report
Great article , but one thing I want to mention in that about Atlantic Salmon .
I recently came across an article about 10 worst eco-friendly fish by Enviomental
defence fund . Atlantic salmons are on the endangered list and are useally farm raised. But if you heard recent news about high levels of PCBs in farm raised atlantic salmons are something to be aware of ..Wild Salmons from Alaska is good choice I are couple of sites you can read more about eco-friendle and PCBs , if anyone interrested .
That is really cool! Hope it shows up in our market soon. I have a hard time getting my husband to read (or understand) nutrition labels. Maybe I can teach him not to buy anything with a number lower than say 40. lol Report
I think this is a terrific idea and hope to see it at the supermarkets where I shop! Report
This is such a great tool! I think it will really help because most of the time I just compare the calories and thatís it. The quiz was a huge eye opener. Who knew pasta sauce had more sugar then the recess bites!?!? I really hope the stores around here start to use this system. Does anyone know if there is a list of stores participating? Its September and I have not seen this anywhere. Report
I won't hold my breathe that this will appear in our little towns grocery store but I hope to see it at the major one we shop at monthly :) Report
I can't wait to start seeing this at my supermarket! Report
This is very informative! THANKS!! Can't wait for the new system! Report
Wow a great tool to further our weight loss cause!!!! Report
Wow! I am so excited about this... I can't wait to see this at my grocery store! Report
I think this is FANTASTIC!!! This is such a great way to educate all of us and hopefully bring America out of the obesity disaster we are becoming. Report
wow ... eating foods without a label? What a radical idea!!! I LOVE this idea, I just hope stores actually use it. It's a not mandatory, right? And will the worst offenders use it .. the bakery, deli and hot/salad bars? Go to their website ... there's a lot more info there! Report
It's about time! I've always wondered how healthy the food is that I'm eating (especially when it comes to fruites, veggies, and meats). Report
I'm so excited about this! What a revelation!! :) Report
This will be great! I can't wait for it to be implemented! Report
I think it's a wonderful idea a long time overdue. Anything to raise consciousness!

Next idea: eating whole foods without labels at all! (I have a dream? lol) Report
I dont know if this is plausible, but perhaps this could be used like the point system that Weight Watchers uses. I've never done WW before so maybe i'm wrong. Just a thought=)
Not that people need anymore confusing things like a food pyramid...
It will be helpful though...people still need to learn that things in moderation, such as pop/soda and even McDonald's if you order small things, are ok and wont kill you. Report
It seems like common sense to me, but maybe that's because I've been reading labels for so many years. Someone mentioned the list doesn't say what foods are chemically altered: on the quiz it shows the chemical alterations i.e. corn syrup, etc. in the ingredients. If this helps people to eat better; to pick up the strawberries and not the strawberry jam, then I'm all for it! Report
Many of the comments here are right on saying that not everyone has the knowledge that SP gives us about healthy and nonhealthy foods. My husband calls me several times a day to ask me whether or not something he's about to eat is healthy. This will help him and others make good decisions in a quick glance. Report
I'm hoping that the food companies will take this into account and get rid of all these sketchy ingredients like unnecessary food colorings (purple ketchup? who needs that really??) and High fructose corn syrup. Hopefully the scores they give these foods are determined by things like that or else they are just going to end up being more misleading and causing more consumer fear and confusion. Report
So, my husband made an interesting point: they're willing to label the nutrition value of a food, but they still don't tell us which foods have been genetically modified. Report
Always something knew to ponder. Now they make it a little simpler to know you are eating right or wrong. The crazy thing is that most people out in the NON Spark world don't give a HOOT about numbers, salt content, cholesterol. I DO hope this showing up in Supermarkets will make a difference! Most folk live in too much denial!!! Report
We, the users of SP, have an advantage over other people who don't use the site - the nutrition tracker! I think this will be VERY helpful to a lot of people. I mean, they THINK certain items are healthy, but then WOW! GREAT new 'idea'! Report
i think this is a good tool. i don't think any life-long change can be good using only this system. the quiz was a little disconcerting as well, particularly that fritos choice. Report
WOW that quiz and this article were eye openers! Thanks for the insite! Report
While many of us here on SP crave this kind of additional, easy to digest information, I'm not sure if it will help the majority of the public. And I'd be interested in the cost of adding the info to packaging - will prices go up? And how does one label produce? Or meat? These types of things - while I love the information - always make me wary that it's another way for food companies to charge more, especially if it's regulated. Report
for those of u who are thinking that it doesnt show which bagel is better...thats not does compare the brands and it goes by each individual packages nutrition label.....(take the quiz- it compares brands) maybe not for produce but for brands it i does....

and I think that is very takes into consideration things people dont such about high fructose corn syrup which might i add is banned from canadians shelves.... Report
Wow! So much information to learn, but what a challange. Report
what an eye-opener! Can't believe the "false" advertising that goes on in store

I'm eager to see the new scoring coming out....simpler for me to grok Report
I love the idea of having this to confirm my current understanding of nutrition values. Labels are wonderful but sometimes it's good to have a second option for varifying information. Thank You! Report
That ranking list will be wonderful, although I'll still read labels. Report
Wow, that nutrition label quiz is enlightening! Scary! Report
Ugh.. Just something else for me to have to try and figure out. Report
Although I appreciate the effort being made I have to wonder who sponsored the research that went into this new system: How can any soda score anything higher than a 1! Even diet soda with all its chemicals and additives... too close to a bagel if you ask me, which can be a wise choice as part of a balanced meal. Good nutrition is not something that can be simplified so easily. If one were to follow this system, and try to stay in the upper 20% of this list, one would have a serious nutritional inbalance, I would think. Report
I like it too; as some of the others have said, as a starting point. I would still look at the complete nutrition labels though. Report
I like this. I spend a great deal of time checking labels. This way, I can pass up some foods at a glance and concentrate my label reading on the foods that have a high number to begin with. I can use this as a starting point and it should make my shopping much quicker. Report

AMIE Report
I agree - it might not tell you which bagel is better but I think a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn't give what they eat a second though actually might when they see a number staring back at them. Isn't something similar happening in New York now that they have to put the calories on menus etc?

Won't apply to me up in Canada I'm afraid. Report
Sounds like a good fast fix for those who aren't nutrition saavy and don't care about the specifics.....but then again once you start caring about your nutrition, you care about the specifics and take that extra second to check the labels.
Those who don't care.....probably still won't care. Report
This should be a great tool for my husband who will not take the time to read nutritional information but should know the difference between 1 and 100! Report
Even though I can see this system having some issues, as BRITOMART mentioned, I do think it's a great start - I'm just thinking of all the people I see in the grocery store with white bread, sugared cereals, Hawaiian Punch, and lots of other processed foods in their cart...perhaps it can help some of them make better decisions for themselves and their families. Report
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