Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
In that riveting courtroom scene we all know from the movie, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s character famously tells us: we can’t handle the truth. That often seems the case with regard to food.
I have encountered the resistance to fundamental truths about food often, but I am committed to doing the best I can to tell them even so. I tell them in narrative every chance I get. I tell them to kids. I tell them with numbers. I tell them in song. I would tell them on a boat; I would tell them to a goat.
I care deeply about the truth about food, because this particular truth could set us substantially free from the threat of chronic disease and premature death. Chewing and swallowing the truth about food could add years to our lives, and lives to our years. That’s my mission, and the truth about food is at its very foundation.
And so I was very gratified to find a recent Huffington Post article all about NuVal, and telling the blunt truth about the truths we are trying to tell with that nutrition guidance system. The author, Professor Marty Kaplan of USC, entitled his article “Supermarkets Say: Please Don’t Buy the Crap We Sell.” Too blunt, if anything!
Prof. Kaplan went on to point out the many instances in which NuVal– which provides a summative score for overall nutritional quality from 1-100, the higher the number, the more nutritious the food –is surprising. Many products with implied nutritional virtues- such as multigrain crackers, or heavily fortified breakfast cereals- are quite dubious when nutritional quality is measured objectively, and comprehensively. NuVal is, in fact, of greatest use when at its most surprising- because that’s when we need it most. Prof. Kaplan highlighted that very fact.
But, of course, supermarkets aren’t really saying anything about not buying what they sell. Rather, those stores that use NuVal- including Big Y and Price Chopper here in CT- are committed to providing nutrition guidance as a service to their customers. NuVal doesn’t tell anybody what to buy, any more than GPS tells anybody where to go. Both are intended just to help you get there. Both tell you what’s what, not what to do.
And, since supermarkets sell lots of nutritious food along with a whole lot of junk, if anything NuVal really helps them say: you can trade up if you want. You can find more or less nutritious foods in every aisle- and here they are. Choose as the spirit moves you.
NuVal isn’t perfect; it can’t be. We don’t have perfect knowledge of nutrition. But we should avoid making perfect the enemy of good. If finding a score you don’t like is a reason to denigrate NuVal, then finding an app you don’t like is a reason to trash your iPhone. Getting advice to turn left where you prefer to turn right is a reason to toss your GPS.
GPS is a good analogy, because it works very reliably- but doesn’t replace your native priorities. In your neighborhood, where you know best, you will outthink your GPS. But the whole point of GPS is to help you get there when you don’t know the way. NuVal is just the same.
New and refined scores are always in the works, just as refinements to the iPhone and iPad are always in the works. But in the interim, NuVal works very well. We know, because it is the first and to date only nutrition guidance system shown to correlate directly with lower rates of chronic disease and premature death. We know, because people using it in the real world have lost over 100 lbs, just by trading up their groceries. Really.
NuVal tells the truth about nutritional quality, as best we can tell it based on the available science, and the consensus of leading experts. As best we can tell it across an expanse of literally hundreds of thousands of foods. It may not be perfect truth, but perfect should not be the enemy of good, or public health will go nowhere. NuVal tells a truth that is good, and reliable, and whole, and effective.
The question now is whether we can handle the common truth, rather than argue over competing priorities. I hope we can, and think we should. We should handle it, taste it, chew it, and swallow. If we can’t handle the truth, then I’m sure that Big Food will be only too happy to keep feeding us their diet of willfully addictive junk, and marketing distortions. Bon appétit.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com