by Marion Nestle
Dec 10 2007

Nutrition quality indexes: do we need them?

I’ve been meaning to say something about all the new methods for distinguishing foods on the basis of nutritional criteria. Companies like PepsiCo (“Smart Spot”) and Kraft (“Sensible Solution”) put those labels on products that meet nutritional criteria set up by the companies themselves. These criteria usually let lots of the company’s products qualify for the label. Hannaford supermarkets got independent nutritionists to develop criteria. When they applied these criteria to 27,000 products in the stores, only 23% passed the lowest screen and 80% of these were fruits and vegetables in the produce section. Bottom line: the minute you start processing foods heavily, the nutritional values decline. So now some academics are developing quality indices of one kind or another. You can read about this in last week’s New York Times. My friend Phil Lempert (“the Supermarket Guru”) also weighs in on these methods. He thinks the criteria will help consumers make better choices. I think a “better” junk food is not necessarily better. What do you think?

  • Interesting subject. I always have a hard time figuring out anything Phil says. It seems he is playing a neutral advocate, but given he works for competitive research company Nielsen, it is very hard to say his words are always suspect with all of his funding coming from big consumer products companies like PepsiCo and Coke.

    I can’t see how the grocers, who receive money for all of Nielsens scanner data would also like him speaking out on this subject without thinking about their revenues.

    Always a challenge with source of funds for any research or proposed ratings system I guess.

  • GSerra

    An important issue to be addressed, and i look forward to seeing how this plays out, if it even makes it to the shelves on labels of the big players. i’ll admit to wanting to be optimistic that when a person picks up two bags of cookies to compare their ONQI score, this may be a tool to help them actually put them both down and head over to the fresh/frozen fruit section for some kiwi or berries.

    However, practically, i’m left wanting to know what health outcomes the ONQI algorithm is based on. Specifically, the degree of certainty (evidenced-based research) that indicates associations between the specific nutrient intakes and health outcomes – sodium or dietary cholesterol for example – varies signficantly across studies and inviduals. To who is this score to indicate “healthy, or healthier” actually targeted?

  • Yup, better junk food is still junk food. My local upscale “natural” food store is full of organic, evaporated cane juice (sugar) sweetened junk food. I still avoid most items on the middle aisles in this store as well as most of the out of season, imported, long distance produce on the perimeter. I shop there the same day each week they get local produce and dairy, that way the $ stay in the local region (and the store is locally owned, not Whole Foods – but it is a clone in many ways). That brings up another point about local foods and the carbon footprint issue – it isn’t the only criteria for choosing. Supporting the local economy counts too.

  • I can’t really add anything to what GSerra or Anna said, other than to emphasize the “who decides and how” question. Because if the Dannon sweetened, fat-free desserts-masquerading-as-yogurt get a high score because they are low in fat and high in calcium, I’m gonna scream.

    It bothers me that some of these systems are proprietary, though – I used to work in banking, and the proprietary credit scores did a lot of damage to people because the owners of the formulas aren’t accountable to anyone. This has the hallmarks of the same kind of disaster.

    On the other hand, it does occur to me that there might turn out to be some welcome surprises. Suppose that yogurt does get dinged for being high in sugar and loaded with food additives? Suppose Lean Cuisine gets a lower score because it is deficient in most nutrients except sodium? Maybe the health conscious people who buy that stuff because “it’s good for you” will wise up. One can only hope …

  • Sheila

    Junk food is still junk food.
    Fresh fruit is still fresh fruit.
    I don’t need any labels or panels to tell the difference.
    No label or panel will make the junk food into fresh fruit.
    When will people/companies understand this?

  • Fentry

    By way of analogy, it’s like my grandmother used to say: you only save money when it’s on sale if you were going to buy it anyway.

    Better junk food is better–if you are determined to buy it and you eat the same amount you would have before.

    The labels were useful to me the other day when choosing popcorn for Casablanca, but one has to wonder at the people in line with “Lite” ice-cream and potato chips and reduced fat cookies–it doesn’t make it health-food guys! And you’ll probably invalidate any reduction in fat or salt, etc. if the claims lead you to consume more than you would have.

  • Hanh-Trang

    Better junk food is just a lesser evil, if we can it that (somehow we attach less the sins of the mouth than other sins). It’s all depend on how serious we are to get away from evil. People will say “Oh! please relax, it’s only some chips (/cookies/ candies,etc…)” or “It’s Christmas/Easter/etc…” and with this philosophy of self-indulgence, we have what we have today: fat adults, chlldren, pets…

  • Popcorn needs a label? It’s corn, which is primarily starch. At home some oil or fat is added (I would use coconut or olive oil) to the pan in which the corn is popped. Drizzle with melted butter and some nice seasoned sea salt. It isn’t on my movie menu anymore because of the high starch, but I make it this way for my kid and his friends a few times a year when he has sleepovers.

    Now processed convenience popcorn (already popped in a bag, microwave popcorn, or Jiffy Pop expanding pan-in-a-package – those are a different “product” all together from plain popcorn. I suppose that’s where choosing the lesser of the evils with a label becomes an issue, but only if they are under consideration for purchase.

    I am so skeptical of any labeling idea at this point other than what is in it, how much is in it, and full disclosure of all ingredients (not “natural flavors” or a huge list of and/or oils). We’ve already seen how marketers turn low fat, low carb, high fiber, no cholesterol, made with whole grains, multi-grain, etc., into clever attention getters that serve more to get the product in the shopping cart than provide good nutrition advice. I can’t imagine that there is a new system that the marketers can’t turn into a new way to peddle their nutrient depleted, lab-created food products. It’s very much like fraud and con artists always keeping up with the technology in their efforts to scam us and law enforcement always struggling to keep up with the scammers. How is this any different?

    Furthermore, as Migraineur says, the labels can also be used to damn perfectly good foods, as when cheese was restricted from advertisement during children’s programign on UK TV because of the fat content. I wouldn’t argue with that if it only affected processed cheese, but it equally applies to lovely English real cheddars, etc. Butter probably fits the same bill.

  • connie lankheet

    i think all junk food is bad for you. nature made us to eat naturally. it did not have junk food in mind . when nature made us. we dont need those stupid supplememets either. they are just like the junk food is.we get all we need from our food and that is the way it was intended.