How to Find Healthy Foods at the Supermarket

To eat healthy, it’s not enough to cut down on fattening foods — you need to amp up nutritious ones. Now, a prominent Yale researcher offers a fresh take on your diet score.

By Sara Reistad-Long
Photograph: Photo by: iStockphoto

New evidence keeps coming virtually every week to confirm that eating a healthy diet — one that’s heavy on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and easy on fat and red meat — reduces your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and maybe even cancer. Research now suggests a new and powerful argument for this type of diet: If you are diagnosed with cancer, the right foods can improve your chances of recovery. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that for a group of early-stage breast cancer survivors, eating a really healthful diet cut the risk of recurrence by 31 percent. "These results show that women can take an active role in helping to fight disease through something that’s within their own control," says study author Ellen Gold, PhD, chair of the department of public health sciences at the University of California, Davis.
But although it’s easy in theory to make the right food picks, the reality is much more complicated. Sure, you know that spinach is a healthier choice than potato chips, but what about foods in the middle ground? "You’re in the bread aisle in a supermarket and you know that whole grain is more nutritious, but you’re bombarded with so many different types, it’s hard to know which is best — or contains the most meaningful amount of whole grain," says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, in New Haven, Connecticut, and coauthor of The Way to Eat.
A calorie count tells us something quantifiable about foods we’re considering, but other factors are important too. So Katz decided to create a numerical scale that would give people a solid sense of how healthy a given food is relative to other foods. The system he and 11 other prominent nutrition researchers developed, available as a consumer nutrition program under the name NuVal, rates the healthfulness of 25,000 foods on a scale of 1 to 100. Ultimately, NuVal will rate almost all of the 50,000-plus products that appear in a typical supermarket.
A food’s rating is determined by an algorithm that divides the amount of nutrients (such as fiber, protein, omega-3s, and flavonoids) contained in a food by the problematic ingredients (such as trans fats and sodium).
In the NuVal system, broccoli or blueberries score 100, while a Popsicle rates 1. As of this month, three supermarket chains (Hy-Vee, Price Chopper, and Meijer) have enrolled in the program, which means the scores are posted on store shelves and food packages. More chains have pledged to sign on this year.
Consumers can also go to the Web site nuval.com (click on "How it Works," then "The Scores") to find and download the ratings. How useful would you find the NuVal information in making good choices? Check out the surprising comparisons below and judge for yourself. Remember: These numbers are not like calorie counts; here, the higher the score, the healthier the food, with 100 being the best possible.

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