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Selling Healthy Eating In The Aisles

Cassie McLellan, a registered dietician, advises customers at the HyVee store in Columbia, Mo., on their grocery purchases.
Jessica Naudziunas
Harvest Public Media
Cassie McLellan, a registered dietician, advises customers at the HyVee store in Columbia, Mo., on their grocery purchases.

Walk into your neighborhood grocery store looking for healthy food and you might get lost amid a sea of confusing labels and dubious claims. Consumers looking to eat right may get the wrong ideas.

HyVee, like many grocery chains, is trying to part that sea and simplify nutrition for consumers who may not want to read the fine print on their food.

At HyVee stores, you’ll find NuVal. It’s a scoring system on a scale of 1 to 100. The healthier the food, the higher the score.

HyVee spokeswoman Ruth Comer said the company tries to avoid telling the consumer what to buy, and in-store literature is meant to help.

“We’re really interested in providing the customer with helpful information,” Comer said. “The customer looks at that NuVal score, in addition to reading that nutritional panel and other nutritional information that they have available to them, and they make the decision that’s right for them.”

Cassie McClellan, a dietitian at a HyVee store in Columbia, Mo., helps give some customers a direction. But HyVee is a business and for all of its well-meaning diet advice, it is still out to move products.   

“It’s kind of hard because I’m supposed to be promoting products in all the departments, and as everyone knows, a lot of things, like in bakery, may not be as healthy,” McClellan said.

She overcomes this potential conflict of interest by keeping her advice simple.

“I always tell people look at the nutrition facts label,” McClellan said. “I preach that over and over and over. I’m like, ‘Don’t look at the front of the package. You need to flip it over and look at the side or the back, or wherever the nutrition facts (are).’”

Beth Bader, a shopper from Overland Park, Kan., recently tried using the NuVal system for the first time at her local store.

After picking up vegetables with high scores, she left the perimeter of the store. Bader noticed corn oil scores the same as olive oil. She has high cholesterol and knows, for her, olive oil is the better option.

“Obviously, I’m going to put the olive oil in my cart,” Bader said. “I’m not going to get the corn oil, because I know that they’re not taking into account the quality of the fat.”

There was some confusion on Bader’s shopping trip and a lot of skepticism. She turned down the cereal aisle and picked up a box of General Mills’ Trix cereal. It scores a 24.

“Which is surprising because this product is half sugar. It also has Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1, artificial flavors, artificial colors, BHG...and the only nutrition in it has been added,” Bader said. “I think it should score a 1.”

Surprises like that have led some health professionals to disregard nutrition rating systems, or even  on-package labeling altogether.

One of the more outspoken independent voices in the food label debate comes from Marion Nestle, a nutrition and food studies professor at New York University.

“There are things that come up that just make you scratch your head,” Nestle said.

It’s not the high scoring fruits or vegetables that get a critique from Nestle – she thinks all fresh produce should get a score of 100 and nothing lower. It’s the fortified foods, like the Trix cereal, and the packaged foods that draw Nestle’s ire.

“The idea that a potato chip with a gram of added fiber or fortified with some nutrient would get a higher score than some other potato chip makes no sense to me,” Nestle said. “A potato chip is a potato chip.”

Now, Nestle said, NuVal is hardly the main offender in the grocery store and more often she blames label claims that mislead consumers to believe a food is healthy when it is not.

“If it were up to me, we would take all health claims off of food packages,” Nestle said.

Mike Nugent , general manager of NuVal, said the system – which was developed first by Yale scientist David L. Katz – serves a purpose for a wide array of shoppers and appeals to people who are in a rush and just need quick answers.

“They are too fast-paced, they don’t have the time, they’ve got their kids with them,” Nugent said. “They need to just go shop and they need to pick out the most nutritious foods –tell me which it is.”

But some shoppers are seeking as much information as possible about the food they eat.

That’s the idea behind another sort of nutrition guide called Fooducate. It’s available for free on smart phones and it goes much farther than a number score.

“Our scale is from an A down to a D,” said Hemi Weingarten, who developed the app.

Weingarten said he was appalled with some of the ingredients in products he purchased for his family and he wished he had known more about many foods before he got them home. That’s difficult to do without a source of information in the palm of your hand.

Fooducate is easy to use. You scan the barcode of a product with a smartphone. After it scans, a mini-food encyclopedia pops up on your screen. Based on this information that is not influenced by food industry advertising, Weingarten said, you are better armed to make a healthy decision because you know what’s healthy, and why.

“We see ourselves as a way for the food industry to accelerate improvements and changes in their products’ formulation through joint pressure of a large number of consumers,” Weingarten said.

That’s the big question in the grocery store: Do consumers appreciate nutrition advice? Do they want it given to them or do they want to control the message themselves?

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

Jessica Naudziunas is Harvest Public Media's connection to central Missouri, working out of the KBIA offices in Columbia, Mo. She joined Harvest in July 2010. Jessica has spent time on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and WNYC's Soundcheck, and reported and produced for WNIN-FM in Evansville, Ind. She grew up in the city of Chicago, studied at the University of Tulsa and has helped launch local food gardens in Oklahoma and Indiana.
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