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RETAIL VIEW: New nutrition scoring system touted by Topco

By the middle of this year, consumers around the United States could have the opportunity to quickly gauge the nutritional content of everything in their supermarket from an apple to an apple tart and from a zucchini to zucchini bread.

Topco Associates in Skokie, IL, has teamed with Yale University's Griffin Hospital Prevention Research Center to make the nutritional information available to its member supermarkets.

And at least one chain, Raley's Supermarkets in Sacramento, CA, has announced plans to use the system. Many other chains and thousands of markets may well be using this innovative numeric rating system within the year. In fact, other competing systems are currently in use or are being developed.

The Overall Nutritional Quality Index is an algorithm designed to generate a single score for the "overall nutritional quality" of a food based on its micronutrient and macronutrient composition and several other of its nutritional properties. The ONQI has been designed to put foods into a rank order of relative nutritional merit, with each item receiving a score between 1 and 100. Fresh strawberries and raw spinach have received a ranking of 100, while regular soda has been given the lowest score of 1.

A team of 12 leading nutrition experts led by David Katz of Yale University, who is the co-founder and director of the university-hospital research collaboration, developed what is being called the world's most sophisticated system to rank the healthfulness of food.

The team of consulting experts involved in developing the ONQI includes past presidents of the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association; the current president of the American Cancer Society; and top academic experts in topics from nutritional biochemistry, childhood diabetes and obesity, to epidemiology, among them the inventor of the glycemic index and the originator of the traffic light diet guidance system.

Approximately 30 nutrients, some with favorable health effects such as fiber and some with unfavorable health effects such as added sugar, are included in the sophisticated ONQI formula. The formula also factors the importance of various nutrients to health and their associations with specific health outcomes. Foods that have been fortified with extra vitamins and minerals do get a boost, but only marginally. Hence, a fortified but sugared cereal with dehydrated strawberries is not going to score as well as fresh strawberries.

Dr. Katz told The Produce News that the system can rank each element as well as a whole meal. Broccoli by itself will rank higher than broccoli as part of a meal that features a lot of butter fat. Replace that fat with canola oil, and the score for the meal will improve. Of course, he added that the "dose" is always important. A floret of broccoli will score as high as a stalk, but its contribution to the overall nutritional value of any meal obviously will not be as great as a much larger quantity of broccoli.

"The sophistication of the formula we devised sets it apart from other work on this issue," Dr. Katz said in a press release. "But the ONQI is a perfectly simple, turnkey system to use. The complexity powers it, just like a rather complex engine powers the cars most of us drive quite easily. Just like with that car, when it comes to using the ONQI, you can basically turn the key and go."

In the same press release, Rebecca Reeves, past president of the American Dietetic Association, said, "The ONQI is supported by a large volume of independent research. It directly empowers people to make better choices, and yet avoids the 'good food/bad food' label that many in both nutrition circles and the food industry object to."

The developers believe that the ONQI should be used primarily to guide choices within a given food category by identifying, for example, which bread or breakfast cereal or pasta sauce is the most nutritious compared to similar products. But they say the large amount of nutrition information entered into the formula makes the ONQI universal, so it can compare the nutritional quality of foods across categories as well.

Fruits and vegetables are ranked very high -- typically over 90 -- because they have very few negatives. Candy and sugared cereals, on the other hand, score very low.

Virginia Mann, director of corporate communications for Topco, which is a member buying organization for many regional chains, said that Topco's interest is to help its members provide a service to its customers. Topco was not involved in the development of the ONQI, but Ms. Mann said that the co- op is working with Yale-Griffin to get as many as 50,000 supermarket food items scored. The organization will then disseminate this information to its members, who can choose to use it in any way they would like.

"The beauty of Topco is that we have the scope of a national retailer but a program like this will be implemented at the local level."

She said that different retailers will approach the issues in many different ways. She expects that shelf tags, signage and brochures will be among the communication vehicles that its members use to give this information to their customers. Ms. Mann said that the ONQI program could be in use by many different retailers by the end of the year.

The Yale-Griffin Research Center is also moving ahead to develop a web site to disseminate the information directly to consumers.

"We think this presents a great opportunity for our members to participate in furthering the health and wellness of their customers," Ms. Mann said.