The healthy choice can be a tough call for consumers

By M.E. Malone
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2010

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Dr. David L. Katz has a telling anecdote. His wife, who shops and cooks for the couple and their five children, and also has an advanced degree, had tried to choose the healthiest loaf of bread at the supermarket. She looked at high-fiber breads with high sodium counts, white breads with high fructose corn syrup, and multi-grain versions that had less fiber than the white bread. She came home with four loaves.

“If a PhD in neuroscience from Princeton is struggling to pick out a healthy loaf of bread, then, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ ’’ says Katz.

The director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and an associate professor at the university’s School of Medicine is the public face of a relatively new nutrition guidance system used by two supermarket chains in New England. The NuVal system rates foods on a point system of 1 to 100 (a jar of grape jelly merits a one; strawberries 100). The system has been adopted by Big Y and Price Chopper.

Katz calls NuVal a “GPS system for the food supply,’’ but it is not the only one in local stores. A simple three-star rating system, called Guiding Stars, was developed by Hannaford Bros. Whole Foods has the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, with values of 1 to 1,000 based on the density of nutrients in a food. Some food manufacturers tout their own rating systems.

It’s not yet clear how much guidance shoppers want, or if it leads to healthier eating habits. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration has initiated studies to determine whether it should be more proactive in regulating so-called “front of package’’ health claims made by food manufacturers, since they have the power to influence consumer choices.

Alice H. Lichtenstein of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy is also vice chairwoman of a committee at the Institute of Medicine studying the effects of manufacturers’ claims on consumer decisions. “We have a lot to learn about consumer behavior and how people take the information given,’’ she says.

Adds Katz, “We’re not the food nannies. People tell us they want to eat better foods. We’re just trying to help them get to their destinations.’’