In its complaint, the NCL claims that the NuVal system is proprietary and non-transparent, and leads to inconsistent ratings that prefer processed foods like brownie mixes and potato chips over canned fruits and vegetables. NuVal gives foods a rating from 1 to 100 based on a patent-pending algorithm that weighs generally favorable nutrients against generally unfavorable nutrients; the higher the score, the greater the nutritional value.
Under the scheme, Baked Lays Originals Potato Crisps receive a rating of 25, while Raley’s Diced Pears in Light Syrup are rated as a 10. Ghirardelli Caramel Turtle Chocolate Brownie Mix has a score of 22, but S&W Yellow Cling Peach Chunks in Light Syrup score just 7.
Even Dole Sliced Peaches in 100% fruit juice score lower than the brownie mix and potato chips, with a rating of 20.
The organization says that NuVal is out of step with the Institute of Medicine’s studies on nutrition labeling, and the FDA’s position as stated in a letter to the now-defunct Smart Choices labeling scheme, which said the agency would be concerned if nutrition labels “had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
The NCL letter says: “The FDA has specifically warned industry against encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods over vegetables and fruits. Yet, under NuVal, potato crisps score more than twice as high as canned pears in light syrup…FDA should act to correct these problems and prevent consumers from being misled.”
NuVal refuted the NCL’s claims.
In an emailed statement, the scheme’s general manager Mike Nugent said: “We strongly believe that the National Consumers League’s claims and assertions about NuVal are unfounded and misguided, and that our business will be unaffected by these claims.”
And in a Huffington Post commentary, principal inventor of the NuVal algorithm, Dr. David Katz, criticized the organization for going straight to the FDA with its complaint, rather than questioning NuVal first.
As for the specific products picked out for criticism, Katz says that the NCL is “absolutely right that some of the scores are mind-boggling.”
He argues that canned fruit, for example, is often extremely high in sugar – much of it added – and much of the fruit’s fiber is lost in processing.
“Every low NuVal score highlighted by the NCL is correct,” he writes. “The reasons for it are available in the nutrition facts. But the problem is – and I thank the NCL for pointing it out – most shoppers don't get past the cover. If a product SAYS it's fruit, most consumers – and apparently, the NCL, if their motives are honest – simply believe it.”
Regarding the NCL’s complaint about NuVal’s lack of transparency, Katz says that the NCL did not ask to review the algorithm, which is complex, but has been made available in peer-reviewed journals.