- Researchers have developed a “food compass” that ranks foods from most healthy to least healthy based on nine factors.
- Fruits and vegetables scored the highest, while processed foods ranked lowest.
- Experts say the system can be used to choose foods for your diet based on your individual goals.
Determining whether a food is “good” for you is not always easy.
However, researchers from Tufts University in Massachusetts may have made things easier by developing a new tool that ranks more than 8,000 foods and drinks by how healthy they are.
“Once you get past the phrase ‘eat veggies and avoid soft drinks,’ the public gets very confused about how to decide on healthier options in the grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, lead author of the study and Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in Press release.
“Consumers, policymakers and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone towards healthier choices,” he added.
Dubbed the Food Compass, the diet is graded based on nine factors:
- Nutrient ratios
- Specific fats
The system gives a food a score from 1 to being the least healthy to 100 being the healthiest.
The researchers said that foods and drinks with a score of 70 or higher, such as berries, should be encouraged.
Foods with scores between 31 and 69, such as sweet potato chips, should be eaten in moderation.
Anything that scores 30 degrees or less, such as instant noodles, should be consumed at a minimum.
Laurie Wright, an assistant professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said the system might help people make better choices, but it’s not ideal.
“I applaud the development [a] A tool that can help guide consumer behaviour. I think categorizing foods in this way is beneficial to consumers. Instead of categorizing by just one nutrient, they factored many nutrients and health features into their algorithm for categorizing foods.
“Consumers are puzzled by the plethora of health messages – ‘Reduce fat but choose healthy fats.’ This is a more realistic guide for consumers. It does, however, not take into account the individualization of people’s diets.”
In the Food Compass system, the snacks and desserts category scored the lowest average score of 16.
Fruit was the category that scored the highest, with an average score of close to 74. Vegetables had an average score of 69 and legumes, nuts and seeds had an average score of 68.
Almost every raw fruit scored a full 100.
“I would make the argument that almost any fresh fruit or vegetable, especially one that is naturally brightly colored, should be garnished almost exactly 100. I would also argue that nearly all fresh fruits and vegetables can and should be eaten,” said Dana Hoeness, Ph.D. MPH, RD, senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, tells Healthline.
“It is very difficult to overeat, in terms of calories, and fresh fruits and vegetables due to their fiber and water content, which makes them a filling food. I have never heard of anyone gaining weight as a result of eating so much fruit or vegetables.”
Wright said there are a number of factors that determine how healthy a food is.
Nutrient density is one of them.
Nutrient density is the amount of healthy nutrients relative to their calorie content. Food with a high nutrient density, such as fruits and vegetables, contains many nutrients and fewer calories. She said a food with a lower nutrient density, such as soda or candy, had few nutrients and lots of calories.
When it comes to choosing foods, Wright said healthy choices will depend on an individual’s health goals.
“It is important for a person to look at their current habits and lifestyle and to set their own health goals,” she said. “Do they want to lose weight? Do they want to increase their energy level? This will help prioritize the foods they choose.”
“I recommend working with a registered dietitian who can customize a plan to improve your habit and health goals,” she added.
As a starting point for making healthy choices, Hunnes said it’s a good idea to limit processed foods and focus on plant-based options.
“I always highly recommend incorporating more unprocessed foods into the diet (such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and reducing the amount of animal foods in the diet (including milk, meat, chicken and fish, as there is a lot of data supporting the fact that they can be enticing) Where it can be difficult to buy or find fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen is a great, equally healthy and often cheaper alternative.”
“Food should always look good and taste good. No one will want healthy, tasteless food. Too often, people are so accustomed to the flavors of salty, greasy, sugary processed foods that we forget the taste of real, unadulterated foods. So, this First and foremost,” Hoeness noted.