SKOKIE, Ill. — Consumers looking to eat healthier will soon be able to gauge the nutritional quality of a food using a number between 1 and 100, thanks to a new nutritional rating system that Topco Associates has unveiled here.
Developed over the course of two years by an independent panel of 12 scientists and nutrition experts from throughout North America, the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI, uses a complex algorithm that incorporates 30 separate nutrient factors — including vitamin, fiber, salt, cholesterol and sugar content — to generate the simple ranking. Topco officials, along with the developers of the ONQI system, say it will offer shoppers an easy way to make better dietary choices when shopping, and they hope it will eventually lead product manufacturers to choose better ingredients and develop healthier recipes as well.
The program follows a growing number of industry health efforts, most notably easy-to-read shelf tag programs, such as Hannaford's Guiding Stars.
“Certainly the way America eats is a major contributor to the most prevalent chronic diseases in our society — heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, etc.,” said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and lead scientist on the project. “We know that improving the way people eat could have an enormously favorable impact on the public health.
“I'm well aware that the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient lists — what's out there — is better than nothing, but it's not nearly clear enough for most people.”
Industry leaders agreed, noting that many recent dietary fads have left consumers even more confused.
“Too often we've tried to focus on specific areas — whether it's been decreasing carbohydrate intake or lowering the sugar count, and not paying attention to the total nutritional value of a product or a food,” noted Ric Jurgens, chairman of Topco and chairman, president and chief executive officer of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee.
The ONQI project originated in 2003, when Katz was part of a 15-member panel convened to address concerns about growing rates of diabetes and obesity in the U.S. by then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, and Mark McClellan, then commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
When asked what the FDA could do to combat “epidemic obesity” and “epidemic diabetes,” Katz suggested that a simple, universal measure of food quality — a system that could distinguish between similar items, such as breakfast cereals, in the same way that anyone can tell that spinach is more nutritious than potato chips — would guide consumers toward healthier choices while introducing more accountability among product manufacturers that make health claims on their foods.
“That was the proposal, and there was a lot of head nodding, but it takes a fair amount of political will to follow through on a suggestion like that,” he said.
So, with funding and support from Yale's Griffin Hospital, Katz gathered a team of colleagues from around the country to create the system themselves.
Katz's work later caught the attention of Topco executives, who had been working at the beginning of this year to develop comprehensive health and wellness solutions for the company's retail members.
“Providing consumers with better insights, more information so they can make better choices on the foods they select, is something that's right in the sweet spot for our members,” said Jeff Posner, Topco's executive vice president and chief procurement officer, who spearheaded the project on Topco's end.
President and CEO Steve Lauer agreed, noting that Topco also viewed the partnership as an opportunity to put these new tools in consumers' hands.
“We felt that this was a much better mousetrap, and that we could be instrumental in making it happen, turning it into something real by getting the 62 companies we represent behind this new science,” he told SN.
U.S. consumers certainly haven't lacked straightforward nutritional advice in the past — eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, is the most ubiquitous dietary advice given by the federal government, non-profit groups, doctors and nutritionists. However, Katz said that the strength of this system lies in its ability to steer shoppers toward a lot of small, relatively painless changes to their diets that add up to make a big difference over time.
Items in the produce department will consistently achieve the highest ONQI scores, which Katz said would reinforce the idea that a healthy diet is based on eating more fruits and vegetables. However, the system also allows comparisons across categories — between meats and cheeses or between juice and tea, for example. And, ONQI scores really showcase their strength within categories, he noted. Shoppers will notice, for example, that dark chocolate, which is rich in antioxidants, achieves a higher score than milk chocolate, which contains more sugar and cream.
Similarly, Posner and Lauer explained that if the system gains widespread acceptance, it will ultimately discourage product manufacturers from tweaking their recipes to make unwarranted claims — professing to have cut sugar by a significant margin, for example, while adding more sodium, fat or even corn syrup to compensate. Handling a formula this way could potentially lower a product's ONQI score, they noted.
The system will be available to Topco members beginning in 2008, and the company will help produce a range of tools, including a website and informational pamphlets explaining the ONQI system, to help its members educate their shoppers. The company also plans to use the system to ensure healthier recipes are used when developing new items in its many private-label lines.
In the meantime, Katz and his team have been giving presentations at scientific conferences, and explaining the system to interested product manufacturers, to help build support among both the U.S. medical community and food suppliers.
“When this idea was presented to Topco, it became evident very quickly that this was an opportunity not only to enhance our ability as members to market to our customers, but more importantly, the potential to make a difference in the health of our nation,” said Jurgens.
“When we're put in a position where we can make a difference in people's lives, we should take advantage of it.”