Utility of a New Food Value Analysis Application to Evaluate Trade-offs When Making Food Selections

Kretser, Alison MS, RD; Dunn, Carolyn PhD, RD; DeVirgiliis, Ray BS; Levine, Katrina MPH, RD, LDN

doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000040
Nutrition Research

Consumers face a wide variety of options when selecting foods to feed themselves and their households, and they must balance a host of factors, including cost, preparation time, nutrition, taste, cooking skills, shelf life, food waste, and food safety. Each of these factors adds or subtracts value and helps determine the true cost of a food item based on an individual’s personal value system. If a single variable, such as cost, is examined, it may provide an incomplete picture of the true value of that food. A new Web-based application, Food Value Analysis, permits nutrition educators to evaluate relative costs as well as monitor adherence to dietary recommendations when consumers select one version of a food over another. This analysis demonstrates how the application can be used to compare differences among similar foods of different levels of processing. Nutrition professionals can use the application to help consumers make appropriate trade-offs and reach dietary goals, while accommodating differences in cooking skills as well as time and budgetary constraints.

Alison Kretser, MS, RD, is the director of Science Programs, North American Branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI North America), Washington, DC.

Carolyn Dunn, PhD, RD, is a professor and the head of the Department of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Ray DeVirgiliis, BS, is a Science Program associate at the ILSI North America, Washington, DC.

Katrina Levine, MPH, RD, LDN, is an extension associate of theDepartment of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Science writer Densie Webb, PhD, RD, contributed to the development of this article and received funds from the ILSI North America Project Committee on Food Value Decisions for her work.

This work was supported by the Project Committee on Food Value Decisions of the North American Branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI North America). Detailed information about the group can be found at http://www.ilsi.org/NorthAmerica/Pages/Food-Value-Decisions.aspx. ILSI North America is a public, nonprofit foundation that provides a forum to advance understanding of scientific issues related to the nutritional quality and safety of the food supply by sponsoring research programs, educational seminars and workshops, and publications. ILSI North America receives support primarily from its industry membership.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Correspondence: Alison Kretser, MS, RD, ILSI North America, 1156 15th St NW, Ste 200, Washington, DC 20005 (Akretser@ilsi.org).

Supplemental digital content is available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal’s Web site (www.nutritiontodayonline.com).

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License, where it is permissible to download and share the work provided it is properly cited. The work cannot be changed in any way or used commercially.

Article Outline

Consumers face a wide variety of options when selecting foods to feed themselves and their families, and they must balance a host of factors, including cost, preparation time, nutrition, taste, cooking skills, shelf life, food waste, and food safety. The weight that each of these factors carries depends on the individual’s value system, and the cumulative value of the factors helps determine the true value of a food. If a single factor, such as purchase price or preparation time, is ignored, an incomplete picture of the true value of that food or recipe may result. Little information exists to compare the overall value of home-prepared foods made from scratch with that of more processed foods. A new, Web-based application, Food Value Analysis, permits nutrition professionals to simultaneously evaluate several factors that affect whether consumers select one version of a food over another (www.foodvalueanalysis.org). For example, the application allows a comparison of several factors when purchasing a jar of spaghetti sauce versus preparing homemade spaghetti sauce. Although the application is unable to capture every factor that may affect consumers’ purchasing decisions, it tracks differences related to cost, preparation and cooking time, nutrition, shelf life, and food safety considerations. The development of the database, the Web-based application, and the methodology were previously described.1

Cost, preparation and cooking time, nutrition, shelf life, and food safety can all be evaluated simultaneously for different forms of foods.

Menu models were created with various levels of processing. The Food Value Analysis application was used to ascertain the value of different attributes of each menu. It allows users and nutrition educators to assess how a given menu rates on a range of attributes and to help their clients make their own decisions regarding trade-offs. Menu items available in the Web-based application were compared by substituting items made at home using fresh ingredients with foods that were more processed and required less preparation time (such as frozen, canned, or packaged products). The menu modeling illustrates the differences in cost, preparation and cooking time, nutrition, shelf life, and food safety. This analysis was designed to demonstrate how the Food Value Analysis application can be used to help individuals make food choices that fit their value systems within the scope of the attributes examined. It is meant to present the multiple pathways available for meeting dietary recommendations while aligning with consumers’ preferences, skills, and values. In this analysis, adherence to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) was determined by using the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Healthy Eating Index (HEI) to score each menu.2

Today, processed foods are an integral part of the American diet. In a survey of 1500 adults who were the primary shoppers in their households, 93% said they consumed processed food during the previous 6 months. Yet the term processed foods carries negative connotations for a significant portion of consumers: 43% of consumers rate themselves as “unfavorable” to the term processed foods, whereas only 18% rate themselves as “favorable.”3 Foods are often presented as if a dichotomy of processed versus unprocessed exists; unprocessed is good, processed is bad. In fact, “Given the diversity within each category [of processing], it is difficult to objectively rank them on the basis of overall nutritional value… processing level is not a major determinant of foods’ nutrient contributions to the diet and does not have a clear association with the health of a food….”4(p2071S) This statement supports the reality that foods lie along a continuum of preparation, from raw ingredients used to prepare dishes from scratch to packaged, canned, jarred, and frozen foods or ingredients. The Food Value Analysis application illustrates the ways in which different combinations of foods with various levels of processing and preparation can help consumers meet current dietary recommendations, while accommodating their individual value systems.

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MENU MODELING AND MENU ITEM SUBSTITUTIONS

The recipes from the database are typical recipes, which were drawn from the USDA Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS), but if desired, food preparers may use different recipes and may modify recipes based on individual preferences and dietary needs. The USDA database provided a nonbiased list of recipes. Using this database removed the bias of selecting a recipe from multiple sources. However, there were limitations to using the USDA FNDDS recipes including that they are not true recipes but a list of ingredients. Furthermore, they are not readily available for close examination by the Food Value Analysis application user.

The recipes drawn from the USDA FNDDS are provided as lists of types and quantities of ingredients without instructions for preparation. To obtain the recipe for a food used in the Food Value Analysis application, a SAS data set or Access database can be downloaded from http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=12068. After extracting the files for FNDDS 5.0, the FNDDSSRLINKS file in the set of SAS databases or the FNDDS-SR links table in the Access database can be used to look up the information using the FNDDS code for the home recipe. To address the challenge of searching the USDA FNDDS, we have added the ingredient list for a sample of foods found in the Food Value Analysis application that used the standard USDA FNDDS recipe. This allows the user to see the ingredients and amounts of ingredients that were included in the calculation.

Food item substitutions were made in 2 sample days (Day 2 and Day 7 menus) from USDA menus5 for an individual and 1 sample day from the Thrifty Food Plan for a family of 4.6 We also analyzed menus previously published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) in which food item substitutions were made in several days of menus modeled to reflect a gradual improvement in diet quality, ranging from the typical American diet to a target menu that met MyPyramid calorie and nutrient intake goals.7 All of these menus were analyzed using the new application and evaluated using HEI scoring. The HEI scores for all menu substitutions are shown in Table 1. Additional tables that support all the data presented in this analysis can be found on the Food Value Analysis Web site.

For each of the menus, the HEI was used to evaluate changes in adherence to the DGA resulting from food substitutions with different degrees of processing (fresh, frozen, canned, refrigerated, packaged foods, and dry mixes).2 The original HEI was created by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in 1995, revised in 2006 to reflect the 2005 DGA, and then updated in 2012 to reflect the 2010 DGA.

The HEI is a scoring metric composed of 12 dietary components including, but not limited to, fruits, vegetables, saturated fats, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, whole grains, and sodium that can be applied to any defined set of foods. The total HEI 2010 score is the sum of the component scores with a maximum of 100 points.2 The USDA’s primary use of the HEI is to monitor the diet quality of the US population and low-income subpopulations. The HEI is designed to capture the key recommendations of the 2010 DGA and is used as a predictor of health outcomes.8–10 Nutrition professionals believe that small, steady changes in dietary patterns that result in increases in HEI scores have the potential to result in significant improvements in diet quality.7

A diet that meets the DGA and MyPyramid nutrition goals yields an HEI score of 97.8.7 Based on data from the 2003 to 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average HEI of the diets of American adults 20 years or older is 57.2, falling far short of meeting the DGA recommendations for a healthy diet.11

When looking at the data from the menu modeling, note that in Tables 1 and 2, although all items had a “home/fresh” version available, not all food item substitutions performed had all 3 categories available for substitution. In these situations, if the frozen/dry mix version was not available, then the canned/packaged version was used to fill this gap and vice versa. An example of this can be seen in the USDA Day 7 menu (Table 2), in which there are only 2 versions of “fried fish” for lunch. The frozen version available was used in calculating both the canned/packaged and frozen/dry mix totals found in Table 2. Although the categories of processing are labeled consistently as home/fresh, canned/packaged, and frozen/dry mix, there may be some overlap between the different categories in some cases.

In the USDA menus, no pattern was found for which food item substitutions yielded the highest HEI scores. For the Day 2 menu, the highest HEI score (89) was found for the menu with canned/packaged substitutions; the lowest was for home/fresh substitutions (74.8). For the Day 7 menu, the highest HEI score (74.5) was found for the home/fresh substitutions; the lowest was for canned/packaged (68).

HEI scores do not vary appreciably from home-prepared to processed menu items.

In the progressively modified menus published in JADA,7 measured using the 2005 HEI scoring system, the HEI increased as the diets progressed from the Baseline menu to the Target menu. However, within each menu, there was little difference in the HEI scores between those that included more processed menu items and those with only home-prepared menu items. An HEI score of 38 was obtained for the JADA Baseline menu using home-prepared substitutions from the Food Value Analysis application compared with scores of 37 for the menu with frozen/dry mix items and 34 for the menu with canned/packaged items. The difference was even less for the JADA Target menu. The HEI scores were 94 for the menu with home-prepared items, 93 for the menu with frozen/dry mix items, and 93 for canned/packaged items, suggesting that healthful menus can be developed across the processing spectrum, from fresh to frozen, refrigerated, canned, or packaged.

According to the USDA, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are at a significant disadvantage in terms of diet quality relative to comparable nonparticipants, as measured by HEI scores.12 In the current analysis, the HEI scores for the Thrifty Food Plan using home-prepared/fresh menu items varied little from the menus substituting processed items for fresh (44 for home-prepared fresh vs 42 and 43 for canned/packaged and frozen/dry mix, respectively.) Although the HEI scores for the Thrifty Food Plan menus were significantly lower than those for the other menus evaluated, the scores were consistently low across the spectrum of processing (fresh, canned, frozen, packaged), indicating that the menus, rather than the food substitutions, affected nutrition quality.

It is foods chosen, rather than the spectrum of processing that most affects diet quality.

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COMPARISON OF SODIUM CONTENT

The average sodium intake in the United States is more than 3400 mg/d.13 The DGA recommends no more than 2300 mg/d of sodium for healthy adults and no more than 1500 mg/d of sodium for adults 51 years or older, African Americans, and individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease, which together constitute the majority of adults.13,14 Meeting the 1500-mg threshold recommended for the majority of adults may be problematic, even when lower-sodium processed foods are selected. None of the menus, including a separate analysis with substitution of low-sodium menu items described below, met the 1500-mg recommendations.

High sodium intakes can lower HEI scores, which are associated with poor health outcomes; however, lower-sodium options are available in the marketplace for processed foods such as canned vegetables, frozen entrees, and soups. These lower-sodium options are not included in the current Food Value Analysis database because the USDA FNDDS database does not include recipes that are specifically labeled as low sodium; therefore, the application could not make a comparison between the two. In the future, additional foods and recipes that are specifically labeled as low-sodium, low-fat, and so on will be considered for inclusion in the application.

Although the USDA menus with processed food item substitutions were highest in sodium, the overall difference in sodium content between the Day 2 and Day 7 menus was much greater than the differences found among the 3 categories of processing. For the Day 2 menu, sodium ranged from a low of 1984 mg (home/fresh) to 2965 mg (canned/packaged) to 2579 mg (frozen/dry mix), a 49.5% and 30% increase, respectively. The difference was evident for all menus with processed food item substitutions, regardless of the type of processed food used. Although sodium is a component of the HEI score, it is not the driving factor in determining the final scores. The HEI scores for the USDA menus were different between fresh and processed food items (home/fresh: 74.9, canned/packaged: 89.0, frozen/dry mix: 82.1 for the Day 2 menu compared with home/fresh: 74.5, canned/packaged: 68.0, frozen/dry mix: 70.8 for the Day 7 menu).

An additional analysis, drawing from data outside the Food Value Analysis database, was performed for the USDA Day 2 menu, in which 4 foods (bread, soup, green beans, and popcorn) were substituted with low-sodium options available in the current marketplace, varying between canned/packaged and frozen/dry mix items, to determine how these sodium levels compared with home-prepared foods. It is notable that sodium levels varied little between the menu with the 4 low-sodium processed foods and the home-prepared foods. The menu with low-sodium substitutions was 1.2% higher in sodium than the menu with home-prepared foods (2008 vs 1984 mg). There was a significant difference between total sodium in the menu with low-sodium processed items (2008 mg) compared with the same menu but using regular sodium options (2930 mg). The low-sodium processed items decreased sodium by 31%.

As in the USDA menus, the sodium contents of the JADA progressive menus were lower in the home/fresh substitutions than for most of the menus with processed food items, although the differences were smaller. In the JADA Baseline menu, sodium ranged from 1817 mg in the menu with home/fresh food item substitutions to 2104 mg in the menu with the frozen/dry mix food item substitutions, a difference of approximately 16%. The difference was even smaller in the JADA Target menus, in which the menu with home/fresh food item substitutions contained 1843 mg of sodium compared with the menu with frozen/dry mix food items substitutions that contained 1919 mg of sodium, a difference of only 4%. The lowest average sodium content overall was found for the JADA Target menus (1843 mg).

The Thrifty Food Plan menus are designed for a family of 4, including children, who would have lower intakes than adults. Therefore, amounts of sodium and other nutrients are expressed here as percentage differences for the family, rather than as differences in individual intakes. The greatest difference in sodium in the Thrifty Food Plan menus was found in the menus with canned food substitutions, in which sodium was 35% higher than menus with home/fresh item substitutions. There was little difference in the sodium content among the menus with processed food item substitutions, which varied by approximately 3%.

Although sodium is a component of HEI scores, the differences in HEI scores found within the various menu groupings varied little, whether fresh or processed menu items were used (Table 1). This point is illustrated by the fact that menus containing processed food substitutions routinely had higher amounts of sodium.

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COMPARISON OF CALORIES

The total calories provided by the menus with home-prepared items and menus with processed item substitutions from the application differed by approximately 2% to 15%. Individual menus containing home-prepared substitutions provided the most calories in 6 of 7 days of individual menus (USDA, JADA) that were analyzed. Recipes with reduced calories are not truly part of the USDA FNDDS database, so these options were not included in the Food Value Analysis database. However, the lowest calorie count among all of the analyzed menus was found in the USDA Day 2 menu with homemade/fresh menu item substitutions. The greatest difference was found in the 1-day family totals for the Thrifty Food Plan, which provided 12% and 15% more calories in the homemade version than in the frozen and canned food substitutions, respectively (Table 1). Calories in home-prepared recipes could have been reduced by using more reduced-calorie ingredients, decreasing the amount of higher-calorie ingredients, or making lower-calorie substitutions. (Only reduced-fat and low-fat dairy products were used in the USDA FNDDS recipes.)

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COMPARISON OF PURCHASE PRICE FOR MENU ITEM SUBSTITUTIONS

Food prices were obtained from the USDA Center for Nutrition Promotion and Policy Food Prices Database, 2003–2004. For food prices not available in the Center for Nutrition Promotion and Policy Food Prices Database, the sales-weighted average prices were calculated using household purchase data from The Nielsen Company’s Homescan panel, a nationally representative sample of US households (http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09310.html). All prices were adjusted to 2011 values using the Consumer Price Index for food at home. Food prices were calculated based on the actual quantities used in a recipe. If a household does not have a specific ingredient on hand, the initial monetary outlay for some ingredients would be much greater. For example, the cost of a container of a spice is significantly greater than the cost of the amount used in an individual recipe.

For most menu substitutions, the purchase price in dollars of the processed versions was significantly greater than the same item made from recipes using fresh ingredients. For example, in the USDA menus, the total cost of the substituted processed food items for the day’s menus were between 49% and 64% more than the homemade versions. Similarly, in the JADA Baseline menu, the cost of the frozen/dry mix items was more than twice that of the same items purchased as fresh ($2.27 compared with $1.05). The price gap between home-prepared and the more processed food items remained even as the menus came closer to reaching the MyPyramid target. In the JADA Phase 2, Phase 3, and Target menus, the frozen/dry mix menu items were 143%, 117%, and 129% more than the home-prepared/fresh menu items (Table 1).

However, there were exceptions for some individual menu items. For example, in the USDA Day 2 menu, the cost of fresh green beans was more than twice the cost per serving of canned green beans ($0.54 compared with $0.24), and that of fresh broccoli was 67% more than frozen ($0.45 compared with $0.27). In the Thrifty Food Plan, purchasing the ingredients for fresh orange juice cost 50% more than frozen concentrate ($0.33 per serving vs $0.22 per serving) and almost twice as much as canned ($0.17 per serving). Ready-to-serve chocolate pudding was less expensive ($0.11 per serving) than chocolate pudding made from a dry mix ($0.16 per serving). Price differences for some homemade versus processed items were small, or prices were the same. For example, homemade chocolate chip cookies cost $0.08 per serving, whereas packaged chocolate chip cookies cost $0.10 per serving.

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COMPARISON OF COST FOR MENU ITEM SUBSTITUTIONS CONSIDERING TIME VALUE FACTOR

Other factors, such as preparation time, in addition to the purchase cost of foods, are important to all consumers. Preparation time was assigned a dollar value using the average hourly earnings estimate of $19.47 (approximately $40000 annually) for all US workers in 2011, obtained from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.15 The authors acknowledge, however, that this is likely above the household income for SNAP participants. Because of feedback from users, the application has been upgraded to allow the user to select a specific wage rate when calculating the cost of preparation time, as the value of time differs between individuals. The value was calculated for “active” preparation time and did not include time required for actual cooking/baking time and clean up. Although a food preparer would prepare an entire recipe at one time, the per-serving value of preparation time was calculated by dividing the value of preparation time for the recipe by the estimated number of servings.

The SNAP allotments provide a relevant example of the importance of taking time costs into consideration when making value judgments about food purchases. Currently, the SNAP allotments do not sufficiently account for the costs of purchasing foods that must be further prepared. A recent Institute of Medicine report states the following:

Although SNAP allotments might be adequate in the absence of other factors, such as preparation time, the evidence suggests that these factors can act as barriers to obtaining nutritious foods and preparing nutritious meals consistent with the assumptions of the Thrifty Food Plan. The SNAP allotment assumes the purchase of many basic, inexpensive, unprocessed foods and ingredients requiring substantial investment of participants’ time to produce nutritious meals. The evidence shows that the time requirements assumed by the Thrifty Food Plan are inconsistent with the time available for most households at all income levels, particularly those with a single working head. By failing to account for the fact that SNAP participants, like other households, need to purchase value-added foods that save preparation time, the current value of the SNAP allotment substantially limits the flexibility and purchasing power of SNAP benefits.16(p190)

Although the Institute of Medicine report addressed the issues facing SNAP recipients, the same can be said of all consumers dealing with time constraints. Consumers today face significant time challenges in getting family meals on the table, whether it is preparing the morning or evening meal or packing lunch for the school or work day. Once preparation time is taken into account, the processed versions of foods are, in most instances, less costly relative to the time required to prepare homemade versions. Although several cost differences exist between processed foods and preparing the same item from scratch, no blanket statements can be made regarding the cost of individual homemade dishes compared with more processed versions of the same or similar dishes. For example, the USDA Day 2 menu shows that although the purchase price of the ingredients to make whole-wheat bread from scratch and buying either frozen dough or packaged bread are about the same, once preparation time is considered, bread made from scratch costs approximately 19 times more than either processed option ($0.09 vs $1.71 per serving). The difference is consistent and dramatic when the preparation time for all substituted food items for each day’s menu is compared (Table 1). The greater overall cost for menus with home-prepared food item substitutions compared with menus with processed food item substitutions (up to 4 times as much) persisted for all menus after the purchase price and cost of preparation were added and compared with the total purchase and preparation cost of the more processed food items.

The cost of preparation time for all home-prepared items was significantly greater for each menu, in some cases more than 10 times greater, than the preparation time for the processed items.

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SHELF LIFE

As much as 26% of food is wasted in US households; fruits and vegetables, fluid milk, and grain products are among the biggest contributors to food loss.17 The short shelf life of fresh produce and fresh dairy, meat, seafood, and poultry can result in frequent trips to the supermarket or a loss of food to spoilage, factors often not taken into consideration when making dietary recommendations for consumers. This factor was not assigned a dollar value in the analysis, although it affects the real cost to consumers for creating healthful meals.

Shelf life estimates found in the database were obtained from Cooperative Extension publications, including the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension,18 Texas Agricultural Extension Service,19 and Virginia Cooperative Extension.20 For home-recipe foods or processed foods that used fresh ingredients, the shelf life for the menu items was determined for the ingredient with the shortest shelf life. Minimum shelf life for packaged foods with no additional ingredients was calculated as the length of time until the use-by or sell-by date.

Fresh, unprocessed menu items constituted the largest percentage of menu items with a shelf life of less than 1 week, whereas each of the frozen/dry mix items had a shelf life of more than 1 week (Figure). As expected, a larger percentage of fresh menu items had short shelf-lives, with the largest percentage falling into the 5- to 7-day category. Most of the packaged/canned and frozen/dry mix items in the menu modeling had shelf-lives of 2 to 12 months or longer.

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FOOD SAFETY CONCERNS

Food safety considerations were assigned based on information available from the Partnership for Food Safety Education, FoodSafety.gov, and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Fresh, unprocessed menu items have the most potential safety problems, such as home-prepared recipes involving handling raw meat and eggs or dry mixes that call for the addition of raw eggs (Table 1). For some frozen items, consumers’ willingness to follow preparation instructions on the package affects food safety. Although using processed foods does not completely eliminate all food safety concerns, it does minimize the number of concerns, which can appeal to consumers.

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CONCLUSIONS

Menu modeling using the newly developed Food Value Analysis application demonstrates that there are many variables to consider when making food purchasing decisions. The “true cost” to consumers should include nutritional quality, cost of ingredients, preparation time, shelf life, and food safety considerations associated with the final product. It is unlikely that any 1 recipe or diet is made up entirely of recipes prepared from scratch or of highly processed foods. Most consumers use a variety of products that span the full food-processing spectrum. The Food Value Analysis application provides a tool for nutrition professionals and health educators to help consumers make the most healthful food choices, given their unique time and money constraints, culinary skills, and nutritional considerations. The vision is that this application will evolve and improve with continuous feedback from users.

The Food Value Analysis application will assist nutrition professionals in advising those with a variety of potential barriers on how to reach dietary recommendations. They can use the application to help consumers make appropriate trade-offs and reach dietary goals, while accommodating differences in cooking skills and time and budgetary constraints. The new Food Value Analysis application takes these factors and more into account to help consumers make value judgments when planning affordable, convenient, healthful meals.

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