Easy System Tells You the Healthiest Food Choices at the Grocery Store

Fresh FruitThe more I learn how much unhealthy food is out there, the harder I feel like it is to know what is good to eat (and I mean like healthy good, not double chocolate brownie good). I take comfort in knowing that, at the end of the day, you pretty much can’t go wrong with fruits and veggies, if nothing else. The debate about how to adequately provide nutrition labels on foods is complicated in America. But some places, like the U.K., have managed to break it down for consumers. In the U.K., many foods are front labeled with a traffic light system that tells consumers at a glance how nutritious the food is.  

U.K. color coded food label
In the U.K., this label tells you if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. The less red, the better.

But earlier this year, I learned that, while not mandatory, there is an extremely user-friendly system here in the U.S. that many stores have adopted to help us gauge the nutrition of what’s on the grocery store shelves, without having to be a nutritionist. That system is NuVal.

NuVal has been around since 2008, but I’m writing this in hopes that I’m doing somewhat of a public service in sharing this info because I didn’t know about it until I took a nutrition class on Coursera last spring, and the few people I’ve mentioned it to where also unaware of it.

The super basic description of how NuVal works. Graphic courtesy of NuVal.
The super basic description of how NuVal works. Graphic courtesy of NuVal.

So getting back to those of you still reading because you want to know more. The NuVal Nutritional Scoring System ranks foods on a scale of 1 to 100. For example, NuVal ranks Green Giant Creamed Spinach with Artificial (!) Cream Flavor with a 26, while fresh asparagus gets a 100, because, “Fresh asparagus are chock full of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and fiber. The creamed spinach, on the other hand, is chock full of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar.”

The system was developed as a response to the health issues plaguing America at a crazy rate, such as obesity and diabetes. According to the NuVal website, a group of health care experts, including those from the fields of endocrinology, dietetics, epidemiology, cardiovascular disease, weight control, and pediatric nutrition, worked for two years to come up with an algorithm that takes complicated nutritional info from a food or beverage and converts it into a single score.

Look for this label on your grocery store shelves.
Look for this label on your grocery store shelves.

The algorithm takes into account how more than 30 nutrients including various types of protein, fat and carbohydrates as well as calories present in a food or beverage affect a person’s health. According to NuVal, the system is “endorsed by the American College of Preventive Medicine, and a recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed that those who ate food with more favorable NuVal Scores had a lower risk of chronic disease and had a better chance of living a longer, healthier life.”

If you’re like me, you’re learning about the NuVal system wishing your local grocery store used it, but assuming it doesn’t. Hopefully, you’re also like me in that you’re pleasantly surprised when you realize your local store actually does use NuVal! (I have to be impressed that they’re willing to do this. I assume Big Food doesn’t love it.) According to the organization, more than 1,600 supermarkets, schools, hospitals and other health care facilities have adopted the system, including some of the biggest grocery store chains. Here’s the list of stores that use it, and if you don’t see your store, NuVal provides a letter you can fill in and take to your grocery store giving the leadership a heads up that you’re on to something they could do do help their customers. 

The NuVal tags on grocery shelves are easy to spot. You may have noticed them before and just not known what they were. The NuVal label is two hexagons, one outlined in blue with the score inside it and will be on the shelf in front of your favorite chips, cookies, bread or lettuce! Since discovering NuVal, I pay a lot of attention to it at the store. Sometimes, it’s even a matter of switching brands to trade up to a slightly higher score. I’m curious to know if you use this and what you think of it. Does it make your shopping decisions easier? Better?


Fresh fruit photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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