NuVal LLC, a nutrition ratings service criticized for its potential conflicts of interest — and established by Director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center David Katz SPH ’93 — has been discontinued nationally.
The NuVal Nutritional Scoring System is currently being removed from grocery shelves, according to a USA Today article published on Oct. 25. Created in 2008, the NuVal system works by assigning a score from 1–100 based on the nutritional characteristics of any given food. Katz is now founding a new company called DQPN — which stands for Diet Quality Photo Navigation — to evaluate dietary nutrition.
“NuVal was criticized for giving high ratings to sugary foods. That may have just been a coincidence, or it may have had to do with who funds Katz,” said science journalist Nina Teicholz ’87, who has written about the food industry’s influence on nutrition science and has clashed with Katz in the past. “It’s a murky area.”
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at NYU, noted that the statement in the USA Today article suggests that no supermarkets will use the system anymore. This month, major grocery chain Coborn’s Inc. started to phase out NuVal labels with nutrition ratings from a new program called Dietitian’s Choice.
Nestle explained that companies typically develop their algorithms for food rating systems by bringing together a group of experts to decide on standards.
The standards devised by NuVal, however, have been criticized by several bloggers and journalists for conflicts of interest due to Katz’s involvement with food companies.
“It’s an inherent potential conflict of interest that Dr. Katz takes hundreds of thousands of dollars from food companies with high-sugar products, such as Hershey’s, Quaker Oats, the Western Sugar Association and the Coca-Cola Company, while also selling a supermarket rating system that makes recommendations about what to eat,” Teicholz said.
According to Katz’s CV, Hershey’s has paid him more than $731,000 for research, and Quaker Oats had paid him more than $633,000. He has also received funds from Kind Bar and Chobani.
Criticisms of the NuVal ratings service have abounded for several years. In 2012, the National Consumers League filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration about the system, noting that NuVal ratings ranked processed foods over canned fruits and vegetables. Blogger Peter Heimlich has also written about a conflict of interest related to NuVal in 0ne of Katz’s columns in the Huffington Post.
Katz led NuVal’s Scientific Expert Panel and was called the ratings system’s “visionary” on a now-archived version of the NuVal website from June 2017.
In an email to the News, Katz did not address questions about the status of NuVal, saying he has not been involved with the company for the last couple of years. He added that he was not a part of the business side of the venture and has only led the development of the algorithm around which the company was built.
Katz defended the nutritional service, saying that that no such conflicts of interest existed and added that he had no financial interest in any food products.
“The one and only goal was to develop the best possible measure of overall nutritional quality of individual foods,” Katz said.
Katz also accused Heimlich of “trolling,” adding that the blogger has been “obsessed with [him] for several years.”
In an email obtained by the News that was sent from NuVal developer Leonard Epstein to The Buffalo News, Epstein said that no one outside NuVal knows the full algorithm and the specific weights given to various nutritional characteristics of foods.
In the email, Epstein also stated regarding NuVal that he “would have done things very differently” and disagreed with several of Katz’s decisions. He did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Katz, his new company DQPN is entirely unrelated to NuVal or nutrient profiling.
“DQPN is not at all prone to any kind of conflict, since it is not a scoring system of any kind,” Katz said.
However, four members of DQPN’s team have also worked on NuVal: Harvard professors Walter Willett and Frank Hu, University of Toronto professor David Jenkins and California State University, Long Beach professor Gail Frank.
At a lecture given at Jacksonville University on Oct. 25, Katz stated that the company plans to release an app called DIET ID that reinvents dietary intake assessment by identifying individuals’ dietary patterns and quality.
Four of NuVal’s developers, including three who are now involved with DQPN, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Amy Xiong | email@example.com
Correction, Nov. 3: A previous version of this article said that Peter Heimlich has written extensively about David Katz’s connections to the food industry. In fact, he has written about a conflict of interest related to NuVal in Katz’s work in the Huffington Post.
Clarification, Nov. 7: A previous version of this article described Nina Teicholz as a “long-time critic” of David Katz. In fact, Katz has criticized Teicholz, and Teicholz has responded with her own criticisms.