MEDFORD, Mass. — Scientists have developed a new dietary guide, dubbed the “Food Compass,” to help people make healthier eating choices. It profiles the nutrients of more than 8,000 foods and beverages and rates them as good or bad for you.
The Food Compass focuses on 54 different nutritional characteristics linked to major chronic diseases. These factors can increase or reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, cancer, and malnutrition.
“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. Consumers, policymakers, and even the industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices,” says study lead and corresponding author Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University’s School of Nutrition Science and policy, in a statement.
The guide could help manufacturers and caterers cut levels of fat, sugar, and salt in popular processed foods. It is the first of its kind that is objective and considers healthful and harmful factors equally. Other guides concentrate only on the latter and largely on just a few nutrients. Food Compass analyzes all of them. It also considers ingredients, processing features, plant chemicals, and additives.
How ‘Food Compass’ scores are calculated
The Food Compass uses one consistent score for all foods, beverages, and even mixed dishes and meals instead of grouping them and subjectively scoring them differently. It was developed and tested using a detailed national database of 8,032 foods and beverages consumed by Americans. Nine domains represent different health-relevant aspects of foods, drinks, and mixed meals.
Food Compass was designed so additional attributes and scoring could evolve based on future evidence. These may relate to gastrointestinal, brain, and bone health, immune function, physical and mental performance, and sustainability.
Potential uses include providing food purchasing incentives for employees through worksite wellness, health care, and nutrition assistance programs. It could also supply the science for local and national policies such as package labeling, taxation, warning labels, and restrictions on marketing to children.
Each food, beverage, or mixed dish receives a final Food Compass score ranging from 1 (least healthy) to 100 (most healthy). The researchers declare a score of 70 as a reasonable rating for foods or beverages that should be encouraged. Foods and beverages scoring 31-69 should be consumed in moderation. Anything scoring 30 or lower should be consumed minimally.
Across major food categories, the average Food Compass score was just 43.2.
The lowest-scoring category was snacks and sweet desserts (average score 16.4). The highest scoring categories were vegetables (69.1), fruits (73.9), and legumes, nuts, and seeds (78.6). Among beverages, the average score ranged from 27.6 for fizzy drinks to 67 for 100% fruit or vegetable juices. Starchy vegetables and poultry scored 43, beef 25 and seafood, 67.
New health bible for food industry policies?
Food Compass is the first major nutrient profiling system that uses consistent scoring across diverse food groups, which is especially important for mixed dishes. For example, in the case of pizza, many other systems have separate scoring algorithms for the wheat, meat, and cheese, but not the finished product itself.
“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,” says study co-author Dr. Renata Micha, now at the University of Thessaly, Greece.
The project, published in the journal Nature Food, was partly funded by food manufacturing giant Danone.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.