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Supermarket in Syracuse ranks products based on nutrition

A family-owned supermarket in Syracuse is implementing a numerical rating system that helps people choose products that are more nutritious. The system is showing big differences in products that look nearly identical.

The Nojaims Brothers Supermarket on Syracuse’s Near West Side has been around for 97 years but owner Paul Nojaim wanted to try something new.

“Marketing is taking over in the food system and that drives sales and we can make anything look and sound like it is better for you at the sake of marketing," Nojaim said. "The reality is it is not so good for you. We want to help people navigate that.”

They are launching the NuVal point system, developed at Yale University, which scores every item in a grocery store from one to 100, one being the least nutritional value, 100 being the highest. Score tags are labeled next to the product’s price tags.  

The supermarket sits in a neighborhood in Syracuse that has some of the highest concentration of poverty in the city, which Nojaim said comes with people having health disparities.

“I think we as access to food, have a responsibility to help people make the right choices for the best quality of food and the best outcomes for their health,” Nojaim said.

Rebecca Bostwick is a program director at the Lerner Center at Syracuse University, which has been working on this system with Nojaims.

“It’s really about encouraging people to trade up and not make going from a 20 to an 80 but making those small incremental changes because we want to meet people where they are at," Bostwick said. "Also, the price of product and what people are used to, that matters too.”

Some of the results are what you expect. Produce scores high at 99 and 100. Soda has a score of one. But if there are canned vegetables or canned fruit with syrup or sugar in them, it could lower the score by 80 points. Two boxes of Cream of Wheat that look nearly identical have a 60 point score differentiation. Shoppers were given samples at the store on products that they could trade up to a healthier option.

Maarten Jacobs, with the Near Westside Initiative, worked with the Lerner Center and Nojaims on the program.

“You have one number that you can look at and say, ‘I can make a better choice,’” Jacobs said. “It doesn’t mean I have to only find foods that are scoring 100. How do I find food that is trading up to a healthier option?”

About 2,000 grocery stores around the country are using the program.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.