Shop-by-number for your health

Published 10:37 am Friday, February 13, 2009

The answers are out there. Iceberg lettuce does indeed have less nutritional value than Romaine. Lobster isn’t as good for you as salmon and non-frosted shredded wheat is far better for your figure than the frosted kind.

Officials for Hy-Vee food stores have introduced a program called the NuVal System aimed at making healthy choices easier and less time consuming for customers.

Shoppers can still spend their minutes scanning labels and twirling their brains over ingredients such as thiamin mononitrate and annatto extract, but by early 2010, they won’t have to.

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The first stages of the NuVal System were implemented Jan. 21, and it starts with a small label that gives a number from one to 100 depending on the nutritional value of the product. The higher the number, the better the food is for you.

At Austin Hy-Vee, customers can find the labels in the fruit and produce section, the salty snacks aisle, the cereal aisle, the meats, seafood and pasta sections and by some dairy products such as butter.

“Eventually (by 2010), everything in the entire store will be scored, excluding baby food,” said Jen Haugen, dietitian for the Austin Hy-Vee.

Haugen said baby food is the exception because babies need fat content for brain development and added that the NuVal scoring pertains to ages 2 and older.

“The score takes into account more than 30 different nutrients, and certain nutrients are weighed more,” Haugen said.

Higher scoring foods will be ones that may have a higher fiber content, are lower in sodium and have the right types of fats. The lower scoring items may have more cholesterol, more sodium, more sugar or more saturated and trans fats.

“It’s not a diet plan,” Haugen said. “It’s just to allow people to make healthier choices more often. The more often they choose the higher scores, the healthier they will become.”

Want some examples?

In the fruit and produce side of Hy-Vee, shoppers will find products that score fairly high.

Lemons score a 99, for instance. Limes score a 91. Ripe-N-Ready plums are a 99, while Cameo apples score a 96.

Greenhouse-grown tomatoes score a 96, while romaine lettuce outscores the iceberg variety 100-82.

“If you really like iceberg lettuce, you can add carrots and tomatoes,” Haugen said.

Red raspberries score a 91 and blueberries, which have higher antioxidants, boast a 100.

The fun continues.

In the cereal aisle, products with less sugar, less sodium and more fiber win out.

Post Shredded Wheat scores a 91, while Post Frosted Shredded Wheat scores a 31.

However, the frosted shredded wheat is better for you than Grape Nuts, which comes in at a 29.

In addition, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes are a 25, just two points higher than Cocoa Pebbles, which score a 23. Kellogg’s Corn Pops are a 17.

It’s all there for the customer to take in.

“I think it’s probably one of the biggest things Hy-Vee has done in years,” said Todd Hepler, director for the Austin store. “People are trying to eat healthier … and at Hy-Vee, we’re making it simple. The rating is easy to understand.”

In the seafood section, foods with more portions of Omega 3, a fatty acid that Haugen said is beneficial to heart health, will score higher.

Salmon comes in at 82, while lobster scores a 36, but still more than a 30-point New York steak or a 29-point pork loin.

Shoppers should also keep in mind that a product is scored on how it is packaged in the store and that the nutritional value could vary depending on how it is prepared.

“If you take a turkey home and put it in a deep fryer, the score’s not going to be the same,” Haugen said with a laugh.

In the snack aisle, some people may be surprised to find that Wheatables Multi-grain crackers have half the nutritional value (four points) as Double-Stuff Oreos (eight points).

Oreos also have four times the nutritional value of 100-calorie milk chocolate-covered pretzels (two points).

Haugen added that there is no bias to the scoring, with all brands, including Hy-Vee products, being judged the same.

“Hopefully it will encourage companies to step up to the plate and make their products more in tune to what we all should be eating as Americans,” she said.

The principal inventor of the NuVal system is Dr. David Katz, a nationally recognized authority on nutrition, weight control and the prevention of chronic disease. He is adjunct associate professor of Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine.

“You really shouldn’t need a Ph.D in nutritional biochemistry to figure out which kids’ breakfast cereal is more nutritious,” said Katz in a statement. “If people want to make good decisions about the foods they buy and eat, then we should give them nutritional information they can understand.”

A free NuVal tour will be held Tuesday, Feb. 17 from noon to 1 p.m. at Austin Hy-Vee, with tours also available by appointment. Customers can call 437-7625 and ask for Jen Haugen.