US rating system could prove a recipe for success

IT seems like a tasty idea: a simple, easy-to-digest rating system for food on your shop shelf.

Based on a scale of 1-100, the higher the food’s nutritional value, the higher the rating.

A recipe for success, it has become a reality in a number of major US shopping chains, where size matters and there can be up to 45,000 products on sale in each shop.

Called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI), it came about after the US secretary of health convened a 12-member group of academics and nutritionists in 2003 and asked them to help improve dietary patterns and, specifically, to curtail the spread of obesity.

In 2005, Topco Associates — a service provider owned by a co-operative of US supermarket chains — and the Yale-affiliated Griffin Hospital came on board with financial and material support for the project, with David Katz, founder and director of the hospital’s Prevention Research Centre, heading up the team.

The first draft of the ONQI algorithm was created in February 2006. It was launched as NuVal and, when applying a rating to a food, it considers 30 different nutrient factors.

It claims that it will allow you tell your oranges from your apples: The former scores 100, with the latter four behind. Orange juice, on the other hand, is a moderate 39. As for low-fat mayonnaise, versus its heavyweight, full-fat contender, you would be forgiven for thinking the first is the healthier. Not so, according to NuVal, as the original has less salt.

Broccoli is one of a number of standard-bearers, scoring 100, as does the apricot, asparagus, cabbage and kiwi. The coconut is a lowly 24.

Lamb kidneys lead the way in the meat section coming in at 53. Atlantic salmon fillet is up there on 87, though the high-sodium lobster is only 36, as it is also low in omega-3 fats.

Bottom of the list are, not surprisingly, fizzy drinks and ice lollies.

Ultimately, foodstuffs score high if dense in nutrients, but have their marking reduced for added sugar, salt or fats.

And Dr Katz and his team are well on their way to applying the system to 50,000 products.

On a scale of 1-100, the ONQI certainly looks likely to fall into the high-end zone as a winning idea.

Don’t, however, underestimate the power of commercial considerations to make this a winner. Manufacturers have copped on to the fact that healthy food means more profit, and often they proceed to feed the consumer information that, while not incorrect, is incorrectly suggestive of their products being good as part of a balanced diet.

As such, if the ONQI is accepted as being an independent assessment of healthy products, manufacturers will want a slice and the system will ensure they serve up products that do exactly what they say on the tin.

So far, so good?

Not so, according to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which refuses to bite on this particular dish.

Deputy chief executive Alan Reilly saw some merit in the system, but feels it is flawed.

“I do not think the US system is a runner. It might be useful to compare different products, but if it’s that simple, we would have come up with it a long time ago. It is not clear as to how they score particular foods; for example, take antioxidants. It is impossible to score vegetables on this.

“I do not believe it will help consumers to have a balanced diet. Where does it talk about quantities of food to be eaten? If it was used in collaboration with the pyramid system, you would have portion sizes and frequency of eating and, then perhaps, it could be useful,” says Mr Reilly.

As it stands, however, consumers in Ireland are confronted with an array of information when, and if, they go to the bother to turn a foodstuff around to read the small print.

Mr Reilly agreed this was a problem, and one recognised by the EU, which was in the process of updating its regulations.

“The labelling of foods is under revision at EU level. Front-of-pack labelling is to become the norm in new regulations.

“What we would propose is an EU-wide approach to labelling, one that is simple to understand and one that does not mislead the consumer,” says Mr Reilly.

He says different countries have gone down different roads and a brake must be put on this.

“In Britain, they have the traffic light system, based on the colours red, green and orange. However, when you have different countries going their own way it leads to confusion with foodstuffs being traded across borders. This is particularly so with major retailers, who have outlets in a number of countries. That is key to having a harmonised approach.”

Promoters of the ONQI system believe it can help a person to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease and also cut down on the ballooning number of children suffering obesity. As such, it seems a healthy development, though Irish customers will have to wait for a chance to rate it.

One thing worth digesting, however, is that a product called McCann’s Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal is joint fourth by NuVal in its cereal rankings.

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