The National Consumers League, claiming to represent consumers' interests, issued a press release this week announcing they had submitted a complaint to the FDA, asking the agency to banish NuVal from the nation's supermarkets. The group claims that NuVal cannot be credible because it generates some "mind-boggling" scores, and offers examples. They go on to say "NuVal's so-called nutritional ratings are a travesty."
So, for starters, I want to thank this group -- whomever they actually represent. Because they are very ably demonstrating exactly how NuVal does just what it was intended to do: tell the surprising truth about the nutritional quality of foods. If the truth weren't surprising, everyone would know it already -- and there would be no need for NuVal. But the truth is very surprising indeed -- and I thank the NCL for going out of their way to call attention to that.
That said, I do have some concerns about the NCL. For a group claiming to represent consumers, they sure have a long list of huge corporate sponsors. And doubts about their real agenda have been raised by others -- on more than one occasion.
It strikes me as odd that some 30 million consumers encounter NuVal in the nation's supermarkets every week, and far from complaining, they overwhelmingly love the system. In some cases, the results they are getting with it speak for themselves. These folks could complain to store managers all around the country with no help from NCL if they had concerns -- but they aren't doing so. Quite the contrary. So which consumers does NCL represent? Hmm...
They are absolutely right that many of the scores are mind-boggling. And that's the very point! Nutrition guidance is needed because the food supply itself -- which spans some 800,000 foods! -- is mind-boggling. And when the objective truth is told about nutrition, it does, indeed, boggle the mind.
It boggles the mind that so-called canned peaches in "light syrup" report 19 grams of sugar on the nutrition facts panel for an 80-calorie serving! That's 76 of 80 calories from sugar, most of which is added. So, the package tells you these are peaches in sugar; really, it's sugar in a can -- with a bit of added peach. And, by the way, these peaches have half the fiber of their fresh counterpart -- where did the rest go, if not lost to processing? And, they declare 20 mg of sodium, when there is none in fresh peaches. So apparently, these severely sugared peaches are also lightly salted. You probably didn't know that -- but NuVal did.
Diced pears in light syrup? They declare 15 grams of sugar for a 70-calorie serving, so that's a bit better! Only 60 out of 70 calories are coming from sugar, most of it added. Still, this is sugar with added pears, really.
Mandarin oranges in light syrup report 20 grams of sugar, for a 90-calorie serving. That's 80 calories out of 90 from sugar, most of it added. NCL also fussed about canned green beans that scored poorly. Fresh green beans score 100, by the way, so do frozen green beans and green beans canned in water. The green beans in question were canned in salt water -- and the nutrition facts panel declared 270 mg of added sodium for a 25-calorie serving. That's over 10 mg of sodium for every calorie -- and is from nine to 16 times more concentrated in sodium than the diet should be overall! These beans are being very thoroughly pickled in brine, in other words. You might not have noticed that, but NuVal did.
You know the expression, "The devil is in the details." We use that expression in our culture because it's true. You can use the word "peach" to refer to a fruit, a frozen fruit, a canned fruit in juice, a canned fruit in syrup, a juice, a jam, or a candy. But it's the details -- the detailed nutrition facts -- that determine the actual nutritional quality. Fresh peaches score 99. So do frozen peaches. Stripped-down peaches floating in a sea of sugar water? Not so much.
Oranges score 100. Mandarin orange slices in sugar water? Not so much.
Pears score a 96. Diced pears in sugar water -- not so much.
Every low NuVal score highlighted by the NCL is correct. The reasons for it are available in the nutrition facts. But the problem is -- and I thank the NCL for pointing it out -- most shoppers don't get past the cover. If a product SAYS it's fruit, most consumers -- and apparently, the NCL, if their motives are honest -- simply believe it.
But NuVal doesn't "believe" anything. It uses a robust, vigorously tested, thoroughly validated, widely vetted, extensively applied, and independent algorithm to determine the truth. An algorithm that correlates with health outcomes -- including all-cause mortality. An algorithm shielded in perpetuity from industry or political influence. An algorithm that does what the NCL claims to care about: protect consumers. That's why it was built, and the only reason.
The truth is, some of what passes as "canned fruit" is really a more concentrated dose of added sugar than many candies. Consumers may not realize that. The NCL clearly doesn't. But NuVal is not fooled by what's on the cover. It ALWAYS reads the fine print. It's always ready to take on the devil in the details, so you don't have to.
The NCL doesn't just highlight the "mind-bogglingly" low scores of some canned fruits -- and to a lesser extent, the very occasional canned veggie thoroughly pickled in brine. They also complain that some of the foods they consider "processed" score slightly higher (although, frankly, not much!).
But here, too, there is good reason. A brownie mix that outscores the canned fruits has LESS added sugar than they do; added walnuts, which significantly bump up the score; healthful canola oil which bumps up the score; protein and fiber; and fortified wheat flour. Now, let's be clear -- the score of 22 this brownie mix gets is not high! NuVal very clearly indicates this is FAR from a health food! But yes, when the nutrition facts are weighed objectively, this is, indeed, slightly better than a can of concentrated sugar with some vestigial component of fruit.
When fruits or vegetables are processed in a way that preserves their native nutrition, the scores reflect that. Green beans canned in water -- like fresh green beans and frozen green beans -- score 100. Frozen strawberries, like fresh strawberries, score 100.
Millions of consumers are exposed to NuVal, and overwhelmingly love it. So let's consider that NCL might be representing the interests of some entity that doesn't love it. Who might that be?
Any entity that profits from consumer confusion about nutrition. I have no intention of pointing a finger, but I invite you to guess on your own.
Why come after NuVal specifically? If NuVal were truly flawed, this group wouldn't need to come after it. It's in front of millions of consumers, tens of thousands of dietitians, thousands of physicians and scientists. If it didn't work as intended, it would not take a gripe to the FDA to kill it! It would die, and quick, in the court of public opinion.
The very reason they've come after NuVal is because it is thriving there. Because it provides detailed, objective guidance -- somebody selling sugar water with essence of peach doesn't like. Because it has been endorsed by the American College of Preventive Medicine and other professional groups.
I hasten to add that NuVal is not, and cannot be, perfect. Out of the food supply's stunning total of some 800,000 foods, NuVal has scored roughly 100,000. We don't have perfectly accurate or complete nutrition data for every food in the food supply. Nutrition fact panels and ingredients lists can be wrong. Scores might be generated correctly, but can be posted incorrectly in a store. And so on. Nothing in life is perfect, and NuVal is not the one exception.
But like an iPad, or iPod, or iPhone -- it is really good. The best of its brand, by design. And like iPads and iPods -- subject to improvements over time. ONQI 2.0, an updated version of the algorithm that powers the NuVal system, is in the works and coming later this year. But don't expect to see the scores for essence of fruit in sugar water to go up!
As for the algorithm, the NCL has also complained that it's not "transparent." But did they expect to see it on a billboard somewhere?
The fact is, the ONQI algorithm is complex. Many people use iPads without reviewing the engineering blueprints; few are qualified to do so. Ditto for GPS systems. The ONQI is much the same. But 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 US; to the Institute of Medicine; and to private entities that have requested such access.
Again, 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. They also didn't express any of these concerns about scores to me, to NuVal, to members of the Scientific Advisory Board, or to the dozens of retail chains using NuVal. Without any prior discussion at all, they just sent their gripes to the FDA. It's odd, if your motives are pure, not to tell someone you've got issues and give them a chance to react -- before attempting to blow up their house.
When I worked more closely with my colleague, Kelly Brownell, he routinely quoted Ghandi, referring to his own work and the challenges it faced: "First they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
Well, I guess they're done laughing at NuVal!
It is, indeed, mind-boggling that marinara sauce and salad dressings may contain more added sugar than many desserts. Mind-boggling, but true.
It is, indeed, mind-boggling 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. Mind-boggling, but true.
It is, indeed, mind-boggling that canned vegetables may be a can of brine -- with essence of vegetable.
It is mind-boggling that "multigrain" breads may contain little, or even no, whole grain.
And if our federal agencies are inclined to condone such industry shenanigans, that is mind-boggling too.
It's the folks who brought you "Smart Choices" and "betcha' can't eat just one" who have cause to contend that NuVal is mind-boggling. But 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!
It's not the scores that are the travesty; it's some of the products being scored.
Is NuVal offering mind-boggling nutrition guidance? You betcha'! My thanks to the NCL for making note of it.
For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.
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