New tool ranks the 'healthfulness' of foods and beverages

We all know eating a healthy diet is important, and that some foods are better for us than others. But is it possible to rank individual foods from most to least healthy? Well, now it just may be.

‘Eating healthy’ is a vague and sometimes unhelpful term. What does it actually mean to eat healthy? We’re bombarded with information when it comes to the food choices we make, and it can be hard to assess it all.

But a new tool has been developed by scientists from Tufts University to help consumers, food companies and restaurants choose and produce healthier foods.

Food Compass is described as a nutrient profiling system that rates the ‘healthfulness’ of foods, beverages and mixed meals on a score of 1-100 based on a wide range of attributes. The researchers published their model and the data behind it in the journal Nature.

“Once you get beyond ‘eat your vegies, avoid soda,’ the public is pretty confused about how to identify healthier choices in the grocery store and restaurant,” lead author of the study Dariush Mozaffarian told Science Daily.

Read: Unhealthy foods can cancel cognitive benefits of a healthy diet

According to Better Health, healthy eating means “eating a wide variety of foods from each of the five major food groups [vegetables, fruit, lean meat and poultry, cereal grains and dairy] in the amounts recommended”.

But which sources can you trust? Packaged foods are required by law to list nutritional information but understanding the details of what you’re reading (if you can read the tiny print at all) is no mean feat.

When it comes to fresh food, information is even more scarce. Many might assume that all fresh fruit and vegetables are good for you. While all have some nutritional value, fruit is high in sugar and many vegetables contain starches.

The Food Compass system was developed and tested using a detailed database of 8032 foods and beverages. It scores 54 different characteristics across nine domains representing different health-relevant aspects of foods, drinks and mixed meals.

The characteristics and domains were selected based on nutritional attributes linked to major chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and cancer.

Read: Eating too much processed food can affect brain function – and quickly

The researchers say they designed the system so that additional attributes and scoring could be added later to accommodate any future evidence in such areas as gastrointestinal health, immune function, brain health, bone health and physical and mental performance.

After collating individual attributes and scores, each food item is given a final overall Food Compass number ranging from one (least healthy) to 100 (most healthy). The researchers determined 70 to be the minimum rating for a food to be considered healthy.

Foods and beverages scoring 31-69 are considered ‘medium’ and should be consumed in moderation. Anything scoring 30 or lower should only be consumed occasionally.

The researchers found the average Food Compass score across all items was 43.2.

So what foods were ranked the healthiest? And what were the least healthy?

The lowest scoring category was snacks and sweet desserts (average score 16.4), while the highest scoring were fruits, with an average score of 73.9, with nearly all raw fruits receiving a score of 100.

Read: Best and worst foods to boost your mood and brain health

Somewhat controversially, legumes, nuts and seeds (average score 78.6) ranked higher than vegetables (69.1). It appears it’s the high-starch vegetables letting them down with an average score of just 43.2.

Meat of all kinds ranks only medium at best. The average score for beef was 24.9; for poultry 42.67 and for seafood 67.0.

Among beverages, the average score ranged from 27.6 for sugary soft drinks and energy drinks and 67 for 100 per cent fruit or vegetable juices.

The researchers say the Food Compass is the first major nutrient profiling system to use consistent scoring across many different food groups, which is especially important for mixed dishes.

Using the example of a pizza, the team notes many other food rating systems have separate scoring algorithms for the wheat, meat and cheese, but not for the finished product itself.

Would it be easier for you to eat healthier using the Food Compass system? Do you find it difficult to assess the foods you eat? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer



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