By John Salak –
Score one for healthy eating. At least that’s what a team of scientists at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University believe they’ve achieved with their new Food Compass.
The compass is designed to help consumers, food companies, restaurants, cafeterias and government agencies make healthier food choices that extend from production to consumption through to policy.
Three years in the making, the Food Compass is a nutrient profiling system. It uses “cutting-edge science” to identify and score how different characteristics of foods positively or negatively impact health. It does this by using one consistent score objectively across all foods, beverages, mixed dishes and even meals. Scores range from 1 (least healthy) to 100 (most healthy) with researchers noting that any item receiving a score of 70 and above is viewed as a positive, while foods and beverages scoring 30 or lower should be largely avoided.
The Food Compass sets itself apart from earlier food rating systems in several ways. Its ability to offer a single score that applies to all food types is obviously unique, as other systems focus on individual food groups. The ability of the Food Compass to incorporate aspects of nutrients, food ingredients, processing characteristics, phytochemicals and additives into its core is also distinct.
However, the biggest single difference is that a compass score equally considers healthy and harmful food factors instead of just concentrating on the negative elements.
“Once you get beyond ‘eat your veggies, avoid soda,’ the public is pretty confused about how to identify healthier choices in the grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant,” reported Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s lead and dean of the Friedman School. “Consumers, policymakers, and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices.”
The compass was developed and tested by looking at more than 8,000 foods and beverages consumed by Americans. The final rating for each item is then set by scoring 54 different characteristics across nine domains, representing different health-relevant aspects of foods, drinks, and mixed meals.
The characteristics and domains are linked to major chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems. and cancer. They also identify associations with the risk of undernutrition, especially for mothers, young children and the elderly.
The researchers realized that nutritional profiling needs to evolve so the Food Compass is designed to incorporate additional attributes going forward based on new information on gastrointestinal health, immune function, brain health, bone health, and physical and mental performance, as well as sustainability.
The Tuffs team believes it has created perhaps the world’s most comprehensive nutrient profiling systems, one that is already setting a profiling standard for major food groups.
Not surprisingly, snacks and sweet deserts were the lowest-scoring category at 16.4. In contrast, the average score for legumes, nuts, and seeds was 78.6), fruits came in at an average of 73.9, while vegetables hit 69.1.
Beverages also saw a range of scores with sugar-sweetened sodas and energy drinks hitting 27.6, while 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices scored 67.
Beef’s average was 24.9, poultry 42.67 and seafood 67.
The benefits of the Food Compass are wide-ranging, said Renata Micha, another member of the research team. “With its publicly available scoring algorithm, Food Compass can provide a nuanced approach to promoting healthy food choices-helping guide consumer behavior, nutrition policy, scientific research, food industry practices, and socially based investment decisions,” she said.