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Spending Smart

A new way to look at groceries

Braintree-based firm computes nutritional values into easy-to-understand scores

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / September 27, 2009

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When Ashleigh Carrasquillo recently made her weekly trip to Price Chopper in Worcester, she was about to grab a box of Cheerios until she spotted a new nutritional label that showed the cereal only had a score of 34, compared with Shredded Wheat’s 91.

So the mother of two swapped the boxes and began a whole new way of supermarket shopping.

The scores, developed by a Braintree firm NuVal LLC, calculate the nutritional value of foods and beverages by examining more than 30 nutrients.

Using an algorithm, NuVal takes the “good’’ nutrients, such as fiber, folate, and vitamins, and divides them by the “not-so-good’’ ingredients, including sugar, sodium, and trans fats to determine the score. Items are not weighed equally, as it depends on their effect on health outcomes. For example, trans fats can lower a NuVal score significantly.

“The labels on products are always so deceiving. This is independent, and it gives a lot more insight into what we are putting into our bodies,’’ Carrasquillo said. “You instinctively think Cheerios is the healthiest cereal, but then you look at the numbers, and it’s a whole different story.’’

The NuVal system is available at more than 500 supermarkets across the country. The company expects to more than double that over the next year and expand into chains beyond Price Chopper in Massachusetts. So far, NuVal has rated over 30,000 products across the supermarket, including beverages, dairy, produce, meats, and more. NuVal scores are on the shelf tags, next to the price of items, so consumers can calculate immediately how much nutrition they are getting for the price.

The man behind the NuVal system - David L. Katz, formerly the director of medical studies in public health at the Yale School of Medicine - designed the system outside the food industry, so it is viewed as an independent review of products. Ellie Wilson, a registered dietician and senior nutritionist at Price Chopper Supermarkets, said other nutritional guides, such as Smart Choices, were created by a coalition of food industry groups.

“They are pretty challenged to be objective in their review of food products,’’ Wilson said. “With NuVal, consumers, with very little time on their hands, can easily do a better job with health and nutrition.’’

There are some surprising outcomes. Jiff Peanut Butter, for instance, received a score of 20, while the reduced-fat version scored a 7. The added sugars and sodium present in the lower-fat version made it less healthy overall.

The scores also help shoppers figure out the best value when the products all score equally. For example, fresh green beans, frozen Green Giant cut green beans, and canned Del Monte cut green beans (no salt added), all score 100 on the NuVal scale. But the freshest are the least expensive, at 6 cents per ounce, compared with 10 cents for canned, and 20 cents for frozen.

“NuVal helps makes consumers instant experts in nutrition without doing the heavy lifting,’’ said Nancy McDermott, president of NuVal.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.