Student - November 20, 2008

‘THE YALE HEALTH INDEX GIVES A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY’

Dutch scientists are critical of the NuVal index, a ranking system drawn up by scientists at Yale University so that consumers can see how healthy (or unhealthy) their food is. In the index, broccoli is the healthiest food, with 100 points, and fizzy drinks are the unhealthiest, with one point. But Dutch scientists doubt the value of this index.

Broccoli - the healthiest food?
The main criticism of the NuVal index is that a food product can never be healthy on all fronts. Daan Kromhout, Professor of Public Health Research and Vice Chairman of the Health Council, explains: ‘For combating overweight, for example, it’s important how much energy a product gives. For reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, what matters is the combination of fatty acids and the amount of fibre.’ Professor of Nutrition Martijn Katan, of the Free University (Amsterdam), even thinks the index could create a false sense of security. ‘The scientists want to work out how healthy a food is using a computer model, but that’s not how it works. You also need to know who is eating the product, under what circumstances, and with what alternatives.’
How the index works is a secret. Katan has a hunch that its designers mainly looked at the number of ‘healthy’ nutrients in a product. ‘But more is by no means always better’, he says. ‘For example, the index sees carotene as a healthy nutrient. But at a high dosage, carotene is carcinogenic. A producer can make an unhealthy product and compensate by adding a load of unnecessary vitamins and minerals to it.’ Katan’s verdict is therefore that the health value of a product can’t be assessed by a computer. You also need the common sense judgement of the experts, which is drawn on in the 'Clover' assessment system at the Albert Heijn, and the Ik kies bewust logo.

Dr. Ellen van Kleef, senior lecturer in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour in Wageningen, adds that she doubts whether consumers do much with information from an index like this. ‘We’ve come to expect more and more miracles from consumer education in recent years. But there are no studies that prove that consumers really do eat more healthily because of logos and other nutritional information on food packaging.’

She even thinks the NuVal index could have the opposite effect. ‘Margarine scores very low, for example, whereas it is very important for young children to eat it. What’s more, the index says nothing about portion size, so there’s a hidden danger that people will stuff themselves with high-scoring products – which is unhealthy, of course.’ Anyway, Van Kleeg thinks there’s already too much health information for consumers, such as health logos. ‘A new index will really just create more confusion.’

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