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February 18, 2016

Research Notes

Simplified nutritional labels improve grocery selection

When it comes to making healthier food purchases in our nation’s grocery stores, simpler nutritional packaging is better. In fact, if one only has to look at a single number — a score that represents the nutritional value of what’s inside the packaging — a consumer is more likely to buy healthier products, according to a study co-authored by a Katz Graduate School of Business faculty member.

The study “Healthy Choice: The Effect of Simplified Point-of-Sale Nutritional Information on Consumer Food Choice Behavior,” was published in the Journal of Marketing Research and co-authored by J. Jeffrey Inman, associate dean for research and faculty, the Albert Wesley Frey Professor of Marketing, and a member of the Katz business administration faculty, with a colleague from Boston College. The study involved more than 535,000 shoppers, eight different food categories and a major grocery store chain that used the NuVal (short for nutritional value) simplified scoring system.

The NuVal system summarizes all the nutritional information available on a product’s nutritional label, scoring food products on a scale of 1 to 100 — the higher the score, the better the nutrition. It is available in more than 1,600 stores in the United States and was developed by a team of nutrition, public health and medical experts after the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) failed to reduce the nation’s obesity rate. NLEA mandated that nutritional labels list ingredients such as fat content, sodium, calories and carbohydrates. While well-intentioned, the labels are difficult to understand, the study concluded, because shoppers look at the product packaging and must combine all the information into an overall evaluation. The researchers cite a 2012 Nielsen study that found 59 percent of grocery shoppers experience difficulty understanding nutritional facts on product packaging.

Said Inman: “Our study indicated that the NuVal nutritional scale had an immediate and powerful impact on shopper’s decisions. They changed their purchasing behavior to pick healthier choices, and they switched to higher-scoring products. In fact, the simplified nutritional information boosted healthy choices by over 20 percent.”

The researchers worked with the grocery store chain that began implementing the NuVal scoring system in its stores in 2008. The chain provided dates for when the NuVal scores were introduced for the eight food categories examined — frozen pizza, tomato products, soup, salad dressing, yogurt, spaghetti sauce, granola bars and ice cream. The study compared purchases of shoppers in the six-month pre-rollout period and the six-month post-rollout period.

Researchers say NuVal — or any kind of point-of-sale (POS) nutritional scoring system — also helps save consumers time.

Given the ease of use, and America’s increased focus on health, the study found that consumers using POS nutritional scoring systems tended to gravitate toward products with higher nutritional scores, regardless of the price. In fact, price sensitivity in the grocery chain the study examined decreased by 19 percent, while overall sales increased.

“Our study also revealed that shoppers became less price sensitive and more promotion sensitive following the introduction of the food scoring system,” said Inman. “The new nutrition scores help to justify the price. This means that grocery stores were able to create a win-win by helping their customers make healthier choices, while also increasing sales at their store.”

Not only should the rest of the nation’s approximately 37,000 supermarkets consider POS nutritional scoring implementation, contend the study’s authors, but the U.S. government might want to consider a new standardized nutritional scoring system.

For now, the study’s message is aimed at creating healthier choices for consumers and a healthier bottom line for retailers.

“It’s a big initiative,” said Inman. “Stores that don’t implement a simplified nutrition scoring system risk being at a competitive disadvantage if a nearby competitor implements a simplified nutrition scoring system. Stores that already have NuVal are doing something beneficial for their customers.”

New supercomputer aids molecular simulations

A $1.8-million National Institutes of Health grant to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) will make a next-generation Anton 2 supercomputer developed by D. E. Shaw Research (DESRES) available to the biomedical research community. A specialized system for modeling the function and dynamics of biomolecules, the Anton 2 machine at PSC will be the only one of its kind publicly available to U.S. scientists. The grant also extends the operation of the Anton 1 supercomputer currently at PSC until the new Anton 2 is deployed, expected in the fall of 2016.

Said Phil Blood, principal investigator of the new grant and senior computational scientist at PSC: “Anton 2’s performance for molecular simulation will exceed that of current general-purpose supercomputing systems by orders of magnitude, enabling the study of biological processes not otherwise possible and offering new possibilities in drug discovery and development.”

Molecular dynamics simulations can provide insights into the behavior of proteins, cell membranes, nucleic acids and other molecules at the atomic scale. But even the most advanced general-purpose supercomputers struggle to simulate beyond the microsecond level without taking months of computational time. Anton has changed this, giving researchers practical access to simulations at the microsecond timescales.

The Anton 1 supercomputer, in use at PSC since 2010, so far has enabled 277 simulation projects by 127 different PIs across the U.S. and resulted in more than 120 peer-reviewed research papers. Three of these studies appeared in Nature.

The new 128-node Anton 2 will expand on the power and capabilities of the Anton 1, increasing simulation speed approximately four-fold and enabling the simulation of biomolecular systems with around five times as many atoms as was possible using the previous machine. These capabilities will allow researchers to study larger biomolecules on timescales that previously weren’t accessible to molecular dynamics modeling.

As with Anton 1, DESRES will provide the Anton 2 system without cost for non-commercial use by U.S. researchers. Time on the machine is expected to be allotted on the basis of research proposals submitted to an independent expert committee convened by the National Research Council at the National Academy of Sciences.

Center for Medical Innovation awards four grants

The Center for Medical Innovation (CMI) awarded grants totaling $85,000 to four research groups through its 2015 round-2 pilot funding program for early stage medical technology research and development. The latest funding proposals include developing a patient monitoring wristband, a novel material to prevent thrombosis in vascular stents, a neuro-stimulation device to prevent bed-wetting in children and a novel method for treatment of sickle cell anemia.

CMI, in the Swanson School of Engineering, supports applied technology projects in the early stages of development with kick-start funding toward the goal of transitioning the research to clinical adoption. Proposals are evaluated on the basis of scientific merit, technical and clinical relevance, potential health care impact and significance, experience of the investigators and potential in obtaining further financial investment to translate the particular solution to health care.

Winning projects are:

• “Self-Cleaning Smart Antibacterial Surfaces,” to design, build and test glaucoma drainage implants with antimicrobial properties based on nanowire technology — Paul W. Leu, industrial engineering faculty member in the Swanson school; Graham Hatfull, biological sciences faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; and Robert M.Q. Shanks and Nils Loewen, ophthalmology faculty members in the School of Medicine.

• “Esophocclude (Temporary Occlusion of the Esophagus in Patients Requiring Emergent Intubation),” to develop a new lung intubation device that minimizes the risk of gastric aspiration in emergency care and in surgical applications — Philip Carullo, resident in medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology, and Youngjae Chun, faculty member in industrial engineering.

• “Controlled release, gel-based ear drops for treatment of otitis media,” to develop a novel timed-release microsphere drug delivery system for treatment of middle ear infections — Morgan Fedorchak, faculty member in chemical engineering in the Swanson school, and Cuneyt Alper, ophthalmology faculty member.

• “RegenMatrix (collagen-mimetic bioactive hydrogels for bone regeneration),” to develop bioactive hydrogels to guide bone mineralization in osteoporosis and in healing of fractures — Shilpa Sant, faculty member in pharmaceutical sciences in the School of Pharmacy; Yadong Wang, faculty member in bioengineering in the Swanson school; Sachin Velankar, chemical engineering faculty member; and Charles Sfeir, oral biology faculty member in the School of Dental Medicine.

—Compiled by Marty Levine


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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