Grocers Aim to Tell You How Your Food Measures Up

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

If you're like most people trying to do the right thing, you have probably spent time pondering the nutritional merits of many foods.

Are Cheerios better than shredded wheat? Is whole-wheat bread smarter to eat than rye or pumpernickel? How does orange juice stack up against pomegranate and V8? And if the choice at the vending machine is between pretzels, trail mix or a granola bar, which is the best buy?

Eating smart seems to get more complicated by the day. Not only are there calories to count and healthy types of fat to choose, but there's added sugar, fiber and salt to consider. Plus, it's important to hit the right nutritional notes on a host of essential vitamins and minerals.

Nutrition scientists are stepping up to the plate to make your choices easier and, hopefully, healthier, with a concept they call nutrient profiling.

"Fruit and vegetables and whole grains are all healthier than sweets and fats," says Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington professor who heads the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition, one of the groups developing nutrient profiling. "But if you want sweets and fats, which ones should you choose? If you want cuts of meat, should it be ground beef or ground turkey? We're going back to this notion of helping the consumer decide within the categories."

Think of it as eating by numbers. And it goes beyond counting calories.

Here's how it works. Researchers use algorithms, a series of (mind-numbing!) mathematical calculations, to allocate simple scores to foods. The more nutrients a food has, the better it rates. Accordingly, foods that have added sugar, salt, trans fat and other less-healthy ingredients lose points. So do those that have few nutrients to begin with but are then heavily fortified.

Fruit and vegetables get stellar scores -- as long as they aren't deep-fat fried or loaded with added sugar. Other standouts include dried beans, brown rice, skim milk, salmon, skinless chicken breast, lean flank steak and unsalted nuts.

Olive and canola oils do better than butter, which contains saturated fat. And all rate higher than partially hydrogenated oils, a source of artery-clogging trans fat.

But what about the other products, from applesauce to frozen dinners? Should whole-grain blue corn tortilla chips prepared with canola oil rank as a healthier choice than baked chips made with highly processed white potatoes? Are eggs better to eat than pepperoni? Where does cost factor in? And what symbol or number should be used to best guide consumers to smart choices?

Those are the kinds of variables that scientists are weighing as they measure the pluses and minuses of various nutrients.

The Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition-- sponsored by 12 commodity food groups, including the California Avocado Commission, the Egg Nutrition Center, the National Dairy Council, the National Pork Board and the Grain Foods Foundation -- scores food not just on nutrients, but also by serving size and cost.

"We want to reflect the total nutrient package," says Drewnowski, who has already co-authored several scientific papers on the algorithm. Scientists participating in the coalition include Janet King, chair of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Committee, and former Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Eileen Kennedy, now dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "We are going for simplicity and transparency," Drewnowski says.

Designers of the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI) have taken a different approach. Led by David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, this group of 16 scientists was assembled in secrecy to avoid outside influence. (The Prevention Research Center is partially funded by such industry sources as the Central Soya Co., the Egg Nutrition Center and Quaker Oats.)

Initially supported by Griffin Hospital, a small institution in Derby, Conn., Katz is now funded by Topco Associates, LLC, a group of food wholesalers, food service companies and 62 supermarket chains, including Wegmans and Harris Teeter.

Katz says the ONQI (pronounced on-key) algorithm takes into account 30 nutrients to give items a score ranging from 1 to 100, but it still has not been made public. "We have scored 20,000 foods at this point," he says, adding that the team hopes to have 40,000 foods scored by August, when ONQI is slated to be rolled out in about 1,000 Topco-member stores. An ONQI Web site for consumers is scheduled to be launched at the same time. Katz said he is also negotiating with publishers to produce books and a diet. Topco plans to license ONQI to other food retailers.

Topco will have competition from Hannaford, a New England chain of grocery stores owned by Delhaize Group in Belgium, which unveiled its own nutrition profiling system, Guiding Stars, in 2006, after 84 percent of its consumers polled said they would use a rating system to help buy nutritious products. Food Lion, also owned by Delhaize, plans to launch Guiding Stars in its stores later this year, according to Caren Epstein, public affairs and media relations manager for Hannaford.

Guiding Stars was developed by Jeffrey Blumberg of Tufts University with help from scientists at Dartmouth Medical School, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Davis and Harvard University. It's based on nutrition guidelines from the federal government as well as the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences and groups such as the American Dietetic Association.

To keep the system simple, products scored as having good nutritional value get one star; better nutritional value, two stars; and best nutritional value, three stars. So at the deli counter, meats and cheese went starless but garlic and herb tortellini get one star, cranberry walnut side salad snags two stars and whole-grain tabouli gets three.

In January, Hannaford finished rating baby food, the last major category to be ranked. It was second only to fruit and vegetables for nutritional quality. "Eighty percent of baby foods received stars," Epstein says.

Consumers seem to be embracing the idea of nutritional profiling. "The factors you use are exactly the nutritional information I would look for if I had time to read hundreds of food labels every time I shop. Thank you," a customer from Rensselaer, N.Y., wrote to Hannaford in a message posted on the company Web site.

Even more telling, a year after the Hannaford program was introduced, sales of packaged foods with stars rose 2.5 times more than those without the icon. Sales of breakfast cereals and yogurt with stars increased 3.5 times compared with products that had no stars. Sales of higher-fat ground beef without stars declined by 5 percent, while similar meat that earned stars rose by 7 percent.

"This is just the opening of the door," says Drewnowski, who envisions a day when consumers may be guided by their PDA or even a smart shopping cart to the best choices for their tastes and budget. He can imagine someone telling his hand-held device: "I want to have the most nutritious foods I can, and I have only $10 for dinner."

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