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Simpler labels make for healthier choices

Nikki+Moriello+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer%2F+Illustrator
Nikki Moriello | Senior Staff Photographer/ Illustrator

Nikki Moriello | Senior Staff Photographer/ Illustrator

Nikki Moriello | Senior Staff Photographer/ Illustrator

By Casey Schmauder / Staff Writer

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After four years of clinical nutrition and dietetics classes, Pitt student Julia Cohen doesn’t take grocery shopping lightly.

“I pay attention to serving size, to if there’s anything hidden — a lot of times there’s a lot of sodium added or sugar added,” Cohen said. “I pay attention to the saturated fat content, and also I like to look for what something has in it, like vitamins and fiber. I look to see what the food is going to be giving me.”

Luckily for Cohen, a new Pitt study has shown that the Nutritional Value system, or NuVal, can streamline how we determine foods’ nutritional value.

The study, headed by Pitt’s Jeff Inman and Boston College’s Hristina Nikolova, showed customers make healthier food choices when grocery stores assign a NuVal number to items. NuVal, which is available in about 1,650 grocery stores nationwide, assigns food items a number between one and 100 based on nutritional content. Nutritious foods get a high ranking, and unhealthy foods get a low ranking.

NuVal’s founder David Katz surveyed nutritionists and doctors about the relative importance of different parts of a nutrition label to come up with one score, prior to the company’s founding in 2008. The system has scored more than 120,000 food products so far. Mott’s Applesauce, for example, is assigned a 23 NuVal score, whereas apples are assigned a 100 NuVal score.

Inman, associate dean of the Katz Graduate School of Business, and Nikolova, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College, collected data from more than half of a million frequent shoppers at a grocery chain that implemented NuVal in 100 of its stores. The chain, which remains unspecified in the study, provided the researchers with access to the shoppers’ weekly purchases six months prior to implementation and six months after implementation.    

For the study, Inman and Nikolova chose eight categories of food to analyze — frozen pizza, yogurt, granola bars, canned tomato products, ice cream, salad dressing, pasta sauce and canned soup.

The study showed consumers made less healthy choices during months 4 to 6 after NuVal, but those choices still had higher NuVal scores than what they were buying in the months prior to the study.

“We want to do a follow-up and see why consumers fall back,” Inman said. “Do they fall back to the stuff they bought before, or do people jump way up to the healthy end and decide it doesn’t taste too good or it’s too expensive?”

The researchers couldn’t conclude whether the customers stopped buying from a certain category altogether as a result of NuVal.

Cohen, president of Pitt’s Student Dietetic Association, said that if grocery stores everywhere implemented programs like NuVal, shoppers would be more likely to educate themselves on what they need in their diets.

“I think the most important thing is for people to recognize their own needs and be able to have the resources to make informed decisions about their health,” Cohen said.   

In the future, Inman said he is working with the grocery chain from the study to look at consumers’ entire grocery basket — he wants to find the  least healthy items that customers are buying and explore their buying and dietary habits in a major health journal.

Nikolova also said she would like to examine why the study showed a decrease in sensitivity to price — customers spent more money when making healthier choices. She said this could be because they were paying less attention to price in place of NuVal score, or because they were willing to spend more money on a healthier food item.

Although Inman said NuVal helps customers make healthier food choices, adopting the NuVal system costs the grocery chain money, which he said they may be reluctant to do, as nutritional information is already provided on food labels.

“The retailer needs to look at what it’s doing for them, and it’s a nice competitive advantage,” Inman said. “They’re helping shoppers and shoppers appreciate that.”

Nicole Coleman, an assistant professor of business administration at Pitt, said customers can compute two to four pieces of information readily, but need to be motivated to take in more than five pieces of information, which is why companies such as General Mills place a few key facts on the front of their cereal boxes.

“Calculating nutrition is not something that most people feel motivated to do,” Coleman said. “Our everyday, normal consumer isn’t going to bring a lot of mental fortitude to this task.”

In describing NuVal, Inman said it works because consumers know the importance of healthy eating and want to make smart choices, but might not have the means to do so.

“People want to make healthier choices but they don’t have a lot of time to spend deliberating in the store,” Inman said. “So to the extent that you make it easy to identify healthier choices, you get a positive effect.”

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Simpler labels make for healthier choices