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.
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.’