Meijer is trying to make finding nutritious food as easy as one, two, three.
The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based retail chain is posting NuVal Nutritional Scoring System numbers on store shelves beside price information, giving shoppers a quick way to compare items. Meijer, which operates 187 stores in the Midwest, is the third grocer to adopt the system, following chains based in New York and Iowa.
Meijer is launching the program with scores for 8,000 products in 15 food categories and will continue to expand the number of items. The privately owned company won’t release how much it paid for rights to use NuVal.
The company is being careful not to label foods at the lower end of the 100-point scale as unhealthy, however. And the scores are not definitive. More than 40 nutrition-evaluation programs are available, including one that rates foods from one to four stars, a Meijer dietitian said.
Food manufacturers are responding by developing their own campaigns designed to highlight more nutritious products.
Shari Steinbach, Meijer healthy-living manager and registered dietitian, prefers the NuVal program because the scores are created by independent nutrition scientists who evaluate foods for more than 30 nutritional factors, including the amount of vitamins, minerals, fiber, sugar, salt and saturated fat.
Many shoppers don’t have the time or training to make the same determinations by reading the nutrition fact panels found on all manufactured food.
We really want to help people cut through the confusion and chaos, Steinbach said. It’s a shortcut to finding the healthy foods that you can be really confident in.
For example, shoppers might assume that low-fat peanut butter is a better nutritional bet than regular peanut butter. But when food manufacturers remove the healthy peanut fat, they replace it with sugar and sodium.
So, regular peanut butter scores higher on the NuVal scale than low-fat, something many shoppers would miss, Steinbach said.
Even so, the dietitian doesn’t vilify cookies, ice cream or other treats. And Meijer doesn’t plan to clear those items from its shelves.
There are no good and bad foods, she said. We really wanted people to make their own food choice.
Steinbach’s goal is to find a balance in each meal and each day. A particular cereal might not be the healthiest option available, but eating it with fresh fruit and skim milk increases the total nutritional value of the meal, she said. Blueberries and strawberries score 100. Bananas score 91 on the list. Skim, or non-fat, milk scores 100. Milk with 2 percent milkfat rates a 55.
Most people know skim milk is a healthier option. But some of the ratings pack more of a surprise. Many people assume granola bars are healthy, but the median score in that category is a lowly 14. The highest score is 40.
Meijer plans to reformulate some of its store-brand items in various categories to receive higher NuVal scores, Steinbach said.
NuVal scores don’t replace other nutrition information printed on food packages, but Steinbach thinks they could. The only people who need to continue reading labels are diabetics, who track the carbohydrates they eat, and people with allergies, she said.
Steinbach, who weighed in when Meijer reviewed various programs, preferred NuVal because it scores thousands of products and plans to keep up as new foods hit the market.
Some programs developed by food manufacturers highlight their healthier offerings but don’t try to calculate the relative nutrition of other products.
Kraft created Sensible Solution, and Pepsi has launched the Smart Spot campaign, for example.
Sensible Solution products, which are marked with a green flag, contain limited amounts of calories, fat, sodium and sugar, according to Kraft’s Web site.
The designated Kraft products, according to the company’s Web site, include South Beach Diet peanut butter cookies, Wheat Thins original crackers and Jell-O sugar-free low-calorie gelatin snack cups in strawberry flavor.
Smart Spot logos appear on more than 250 PepsiCo products, according to the company’s Web site, that have limited amounts of fat, sodium and added sugars. The designation also takes into account fiber and vitamin contents.
Among the designated items are Baked Lay’s chips, Rold Gold pretzels and Sun Chips, original.
Kroger Co. is working with some food manufacturers to increase the use of nutrition-related symbols on packages, including those that label foods as heart healthy, spokesman John Elliott said. Private Selections products, Kroger’s store brand, are also using symbols, he said.
But the Cincinnati-based grocery chain isn’t posting nutrition scores on store shelves – yet.
Kroger is still evaluating whether the NuVal system, used by several smaller, regional food retailers, would add additional information of sufficient value for customers, Elliott said in an e-mail.
Kroger has other programs that promote wellness, including health kiosks placed in some stores as part of a pilot program. The touch-screen computers let shoppers see fitness and nutrition information and print recipes, Elliott said.
Although the company has received positive feedback from customers, Kroger is waiting for the pilot program to run its course before deciding whether to place the kiosks in more stores, he said.
John Wolf, Wal-Mart district manager, isn’t familiar with the NuVal program and would want to know more about how the scores are calculated.
Still, the idea intrigues him.
It sounds like it may have some merit, he said.
Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi said the retailer adopted the scores as part of a broad effort to provide healthy living solutions. That includes providing healthy recipes online and offering free antibiotics and prenatal vitamins, he said.
Meijer wants to meet existing customers’ needs and attract more customers, he said, increasing the chain’s sales.
Kimisha Ellis would definitely use nutrition scores to guide her shopping. She doesn’t shop at Meijer, however. The Tower Bank branch manager has four children – ages 12, 10, 8 and 7 – and one on the way.
She hopes Wal-Mart also adopts the NuVal program. That’s where she shops.
It gives you your options, Ellis said of the nutrition scores. You can kind of strive for a balance.