Monday, August 30, 2010


Grocery stores world over have a variety of foods, good and bad. How does one make a selection of the right food with highest nutritional value when there may be half a dozen brands of same category of products on the shelves? As the right to information is inviolable, the mandatory labeling system is generally designed to provide the consumer with an insight about the nature and quality of food purchased. It is another matter that the logistics of loading all information on a small sized label are cumbersome and often impractical. The consumers in general have very vague ideas about nutritional quality of foods though many know the importance of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Lately more awareness seems to be developing regarding the positive importance of dietary fibers, omega-3 fatty acids, Calcium and antioxidants, Equally true is the knowledge about the negative importance of Sodium, Cholesterol, Saturated fats and Trans fats. Still it is difficult to make an informed choice about relative strength or deficiency of each brand on the market shelf.

From time to time many grading techniques have been considered for providing the consumers with a guideline for selecting or rejecting a particular food based on positive and negative nutritional impact but none seems to have gained universal acceptance so far. One of the better food assessment methods being offered to the industry is the NuVal system pioneered by by a group of nutritional and medical professionals which appears to be gaining popularity amongst smaller manufacturers. The Overall Nutritional Quality Index Algorithm is based on more than 30 nutrients and food constituents, some desirable and others less desirable, the NuVal system assigns a particular number to each product based on detailed chemical analysis which needs to be displayed prominently on the front of the label for easy comprehension by the consumers.

According to this method of nutritional scoring importance is given to positive food constituents like proteins and their quality, Omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, bioflavanoids, Calcium content, Vitamins, some critical minerals while negative ones like Sugar, Salt, Trans fats, saturated fats, Cholesterol will bring down the overall score. The reference values used are based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans and as such may not be applicable in other countries. Fresh vegetables score more than 80, while most of their canned counterparts have scores less than 20. Frozen vegetables score around 60 while fresh fruits have scores more than 80. Processed foods like cereals, breads and rolls, cookies, crackers, salty snacks will not be able to score more than 20 to 30 unless whole grains or multi grains or oats or brans are used in the recipes. Milk products can have high values more than 60 depending on the ingredients added during processing.

A dispassionate observer will find such a system very reasonable but the main stream industry seems to be opposing this approach because most of the products they make are able to muster only low scores, because of too much sugar or carbohydrates with high glycaemic load or high saturated fat levels or high salt content or low content of vitamins or high glycaemic values. Their main contention is that the existing labeling system gives sufficient information to the buyers and NuVal scores may unfairly downgrade their products. This has to be expected because of likely backlash they may face from the consumers with serious financial consequences on their business. But for start up ventures and small scale business NuVal may provide a prop for promoting their products and establish brand recognition.

A country like India should probably buy this patented scoring system for implementing country-wide as a mandatory measure to prevent fake, spurious and adulterated food products flooding the market. A major constraint would be the cost factor for individual manufacturer to generate data on products necessary for arriving at the nutritional score for his product portfolio. To be insisted upon should be the necessity for the conformation of the basic quality of foods so graded to the safety norms stipulated in statute books. If such an approach is not found to be feasible or practical for adoption nation wide, at least it should be made compulsory for foods supplied to the applied nutrition program of the country which involves investment of billions of rupees every year with doubtful impact on child malnutrition. Already some school feeding programs in the US are using NuVal scoring for food supplies entering the program.


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