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 (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.

Scoring Your Food
Lobster: 36 vs. Oysters: 81
Both these seafoods are low in fat and high in protein, but the oyster owes its higher score to its rich omega-3 content. Lobster is also a loser for the amount of sodium it contains.
Green Giant Cut Green Beans: 52 vs. Del Monte Blue Lake Cut Green Beans No Salt Added: 100
You’d think that two cans of beans would rank about the same, but additives and high sodium content make Green Giant the less nutritious option.
Amish Kitchens Kluski Noodles Extra Thick Ribbon: 11 vs. Barilla Plus Pasta Spaghetti Multigrain: 91
The high fiber content of whole grains, plus a low number of additives, helps boost Barilla Plus Pasta, while refined grains and extra ingredients such as eggs put Amish Kitchens Kluski noodles at the bottom.
Turkey breast, skin on: 31 vs. Flank steak (beef ): 34
A high level of iron helps beef edge into the lead over turkey breast (take off the skin, however, and turkey gobbles ahead to 48 points). In general, the scores of meats, because of their high saturated fat content, tend not to go above the low 50s.
Rold Gold Pretzel Tiny Twists Fat Free: 10 vs. Doritos Tortilla Chips Cool Ranch: 23
Doritos score better than expected because they contain both less salt and more fiber than pretzels.
Coconuts: 24 vs. Bananas: 91
While both fruits are especially high in fiber, bananas are tops in potassium and coconuts lose points for their high saturated fat content.
Keebler Wheatables Hearty Multi-Grain: 4 vs. Ryvita Rye & Oat Bran All Natural Crispbread: 87
According to Katz’s team, crackers have some of the most wildly differing scores. Ryvita gets high marks because it is high in whole grains and fiber, and also — unlike the Wheatables — it lacks harmful fats and is relatively low in additives.

The Best Anti-Aging Foods You’re Not Eating Enough Of
Who says nutritious equals boring? Improve your diet with these up-and-comers on the superfoods list. You can find most in the "gourmet food" section at
1. Gooseberries
Especially high in cancer-fighting vitamin C, these tart berries are also a good source of vitamin A, calcium, and iron. The purple variety contains almost 50 percent more antioxidants than blueberries.
2. Avocado
One fruit contains a whopping 11 to 17 grams of fiber. A 2005 study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry reported that avocados contain enough lutein to stop cancer growth in a lab experiment. Lutein also contributes to eye health.
3. Ostrich meat
It comes from a bird but tastes more like red meat, and it’s much lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than either chicken or steak. It’s also an excellent source of zinc, selenium, and iron.
4. Guava
This is totally edible from skin to seeds, if it’s ripe, and so is sometimes called the apple of the tropics. This aromatic fruit is a great source of potassium, which helps keep blood pressure in check. Guava has won praise from the USDA for being rich in antioxidants.
5. Arctic char
A close but milder tasting relative of salmon, this fish is packed with omega-3 fatty acids (shown in Columbia University research to help prevent colorectal cancer). Arctic char is also exceptionally high in protein.
6. Walnuts
A single ounce contains more than the U.S. recommended daily amount of omega-3s. Most nuts are also great sources of cardio-protective monounsaturated fats and hypertension-fighting L-arginine. A study published in the British Medical Journal linked eating them regularly to a 35 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
7. French lentils
High in fiber (one-third your U.S. RDA in a single half-cup serving), lentils are great for regulating blood sugar and preventing diabetes, and make a great meat substitute. French lentils (they’re green) are more delicate and peppery than the usual supermarket lentil offering.
Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2009.

First Published Thu, 2009-04-30 21:45

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