With 40,000 items in the average supermarket, making healthy choices can be challenging. That sourdough loaf, tub of yogurt and can of vegetable soup might look wholesome but may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
To clear up the confusion, experts at Tufts University have come up with a nutritional value scoring system called Food Compass. Here’s the story…
Introduced in 2021 by researchers at the Friedman School at Tufts, Food Compass provides a holistic measure of the overall nutritional value of a food, drink, or mixed meal. The score incorporates cutting-edge science on how characteristics of more than 8,000 foods positively or negatively impact health.
The aim is to provide a scientifically grounded means for evaluating the overall healthfulness of foods and beverages and do a better job than current food scoring systems, which have serious limitations.
How Does Food Compass Work?
Food Compass incorporates a range of 54 potentially protective and harmful ingredients across nine scoring domains: vitamins, minerals, nutrient ratios, fiber and protein, specific fats, phytochemicals, food-based ingredients, extent of processing, and additives.
Of course, once scientists established Food Compass it needed to be tested in the real world to see if the scoring system could really be used to make dietary choices that would impact health.
Alarmingly Poor Diets
The researchers first used nationally representative dietary records and health data from 47,999 U.S. adults aged 20 to 85 who were enrolled between 1999 and 2018 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The scientists determined deaths of participants by examining the National Death Index (NDI).
The team used Food Compass to score a person’s entire diet based on the scores of all the foods and beverages consumed regularly.
Food Compass boosts scores for ingredients shown to have protective effects on health, like fruits, non-starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, seafood, yogurt, and plant oils; and lowers scores for less healthful ingredients like refined grains, red and processed meat, and ultra-processed foods and additives.
To be useful Food Compass would have to show that the most nutritious foods lead to better long-term health outcomes and reduce mortality.
Findings revealed the diets of Americans are appalling, with the average score being just 35.5 out of 100. That’s not much higher than the threshold score for food products to be minimized in the diet. Fewer than one percent scored over 70. This translates to 32.7 percent of U.S. adults having poor quality diets, while a mere 0.5 percent eat an ideal diet.
Meghan O’Hearn, the study’s lead author, commented, saying, “One of the most alarming discoveries was just how poor the national average diet is.”
Next up was to see if higher scores predicted better health outcomes and lower mortality.
Helps Consumers Improve Health
Even after adjusting for multiple risk factors, a higher Food Compass diet score was associated with reduced levels for blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol, body mass index, and lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and cancer.
Each 11-point increase in the score was linked to a seven percent lower risk of all-cause mortality.
Senior author Dariush Mozaffarian said, “When searching for healthy foods and drinks, it can be a bit of a wild west. Our findings support the validity of Food Compass as a tool to guide consumer decisions, as well as industry reformulations and public health strategies to identify and encourage healthier foods and beverages.”
Meghan O’Hearn added: “We hope the Food Compass algorithm can help guide front-of-pack labeling; procurement choices in workplace, hospital, and school cafeterias; incentive programs for healthier eating in healthcare and federal nutrition programs; industry reformulations; and government policies around food.”
While a food scoring system like Food Compass is no doubt useful in choosing foods to promote better health, you can also use this simple rule: Avoid ultra-processed foods and steer clear of refined sugars and foods filled with preservatives. Instead, focus on eating foods as close to natural as possible– such as fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy oils such as olive and coconut oils.