Have you heard of these new food rating systems being used to grocery stores to help us find healthy food? The Chicago Tribune reports that
In an attempt to help consumers sort through confusing and sometimes misleading labels, grocery stores are rolling out individual food rating systems. At least five new programs designed to single out healthy foods are in use across the country or are expected to launch in the next few months… But the new systems are anything but simple. Each is based on different criteria. Some exclude snack foods, candy, ice cream and jams from the ratings. Some try to help consumers find the healthiest food within a category, such as cookies. Others allow comparisons of foods in different supermarket aisles. And while a product might be labeled healthy according to one system, it might receive a low score elsewhere.
Can OR be used to help develop the right criteria?
The discussion of breakfast cereals interest me greatly. The food rating systems rated Frosted Flakes low, yet the American Dietetic Association considers it a “Smart Choice” (!)
My mother developed a early food rating system for determining which breakfast cereals she would allow in the house. Her method was simple: only cereals with 9 grams of sugar per serving or less were allowed. Virtually all of the sugary breakfast cereal marketed at children were banned with my mother’s system (most have 12+ grams of sugar). The underlying assumption of my mother’s system was that lack of sugar is a good proxy for nutrition.
Now that I have little ones at home that greatly prefer my husband’s sugary cereal to my oatmeal, I have enhanced my mother’s cereal rating system. I noticed that cereals with low amounts of sugar often are devoid of nutrition (such as Rice Krispies and Kix), so eliminating sugar isn’t enough. So I’ve developed a series of rules for cereal, much to my husband’s amusement:
- Sugar: 6 grams or less
- Fiber: 3 grams or more (preferably soluble)
- Protein: 2 grams or more
On a practical level, my mother’s cereal rating system was effective because it provided clear, black-and-white guidelines for what was allowed. And the 9 gram threshold was perfect, since there were few cereals near the 9 gram threshold (most had 12+ or fewer than 6 grams of sugar), so we didn’t have the opportunity to sneak over the line. My multi-faceted system tends to blur the line somewhat for my husband . Maybe my mother knows best. If I had to choose only a single rule, I would go with the three grams of fiber. Fiber content may be the best proxy for cereal nutrition (high fiber cereals are virtually all low in sugar whereas low sugar cereals do not all contain fiber).
Last year, Consumer Reports rated breakfast cereals, using criteria that are similar to mine. They weighed sugar heavily (like Mom) and also included fiber. I felt slightly vindicated, but I give my mother a lot of credit for being a pioneer and beating Consumer Reports by three decades. (She had other great rules, too, like eating something green for dinner every night, which eventually fostered my love of broccoli and spinach).
In the end, the goal is to deliver a healthy breakfast to my kids (not necessarily breakfast cereal), which is why I insist on oatmeal in the winter and often slice up a banana or peach along with breakfast. Consumer reports actually rated steel cut oats (my favorite, too) the highest overall.
Do you use any food rating systems?