Nutritionism for Dummies

Do you like being called stupid? I don’t. So an ad campaign that depends on convincing me that eating healthy is too “confusing” and that I need it simplified is … well, “not very effective” is probably a too-polite way to say it.

But that’s just what NuVal is doing. I’ve got their video embedded below — come see it on the blog if you don’t see it in your email — but before you watch it I want you to listen for something: How many ways do they tell you that you’re not as smart as them, and that you should leave the hard thinking to someone else?

Tom Naughton has a hilarious analysis of what’s wrong with NuVal over at the site for the documentary Fat Head. (Which, by the way, I just added to my NetFlix queue. Check the trailer where he reproduces Morgan Spurlock’s McDonalds diet but loses weight. And his doctor says, “I don’t like what you’re proving here.”)

He shares a (fake, I think) interview with a NuVal employee. My favorite exchange:

Fat Head: I also don’t see why cholesterol and sodium are denominators.  Your site says the inputs for the algorithm are based on broad scientific research.  Can you actually point to any research that proves cholesterol and sodium are bad for us?

NuVal: We conducted an exhaustive review of the literature and found that in nearly every case, the federal government said cholesterol and sodium are bad.

But seriously …

The NuVal system isn’t just insulting and oversimplified: It’s hypocritical.

The narrator in that video says:

Consumers often have few clues on how best to choose the right foods for themselves and their families.

But the President of NuVal, Nancy McDermott, says (in that same video):

Many have gone before us and really tried to provide nutrition and health information to consumers. I think over time that information just continued to pile up and really became more and more confusing to consumers.

NuVal is the opportunity to simplify all that — cut through all that confusion and do something that’s simple, at the point of purchase, allowing consumers to make one decision, one food at a time.

Did you catch that? The problem is that consumers don’t have enough information and consumers have too much information. We get confused by information. To eliminate the confusion, they’re eliminating the information. Problem solved!

I said to listen for how many ways they call us stupid:

  • … cuts through the nutrition clutter …
  • 1 number, 1 decision, 1 food at a time
  • … making truly informed food and beverage decisions possible and easy …
  • … cut through all that confusion and do something that’s simple …
  • With the NuVal nutritional scoring system, consumers finally have the power to rise above the nutrition confusion, and improve their health.

Isn’t that great? Now that someone has done all that icky thinking for you, you can finally improve your health.

Wait … was that a health claim?

Has that been evaluated by the FDA? I don’t suppose it matters, since their formula is entirely based on FDA guidelines, which aren’t any good. (But don’t get me started on that.)

So let’s take the NuVal concept — one number for everything — and see how that idea would work for medicine. Imagine if every drug were rated on a scale from 1 to 100. Higher number are always better.

So if aspirin scores 100 that’s the only drug you should take, right? Oh, unless you’ve got an ulcer. Or hemophilia.

How about ibuprofen, what if that scores 100? Great, use that. Except it doesn’t protect against heart attack like aspirin does.

And if they both score 100, which one should I take for my cancer treatment? What’s that you say, “It depends”? But that’s not simple. Aren’t we supposed to like simple?

The point is, different drugs have different effects on different people. There’s no one “best” drug, so how can there be a single “best” food? Oranges score 100 on the NuVal scale. How healthy do you think you’d be eating nothing but oranges?

Finally, how about that slogan: “1 number, 1 decision, 1 food at a time.” I assume they expect you to eventually eat something, right? So you’re not just going to look at the NuVal score on one food and decide to eat it or not. You’re going to compare this food to that food and decide which one to buy. So it’s 50,000 numbers (one for each item in a modern grocery store), hundreds of decisions (unless you plan on eating only one food all the time), every food all at the same time.

NuVal is worse than useless, it’s actively harmful. The sad thing is it’s only one of many things we’re told every day that are harmful. I’m just picking on this one today because the people pushing it are insulting our intelligence to do it.
PS: I’m late to this game. Kristen over at FoodRenegade noticed NuVal a year ago.