Many people want to start the year with healthier food choices. But how do you choose between seemingly similar foods, snacks or drinks? How does a cream cheese bagel compare to toast topped with avocado, for example? Or a protein-based shake versus a fruit-filled smoothie? Or two chicken dishes, prepared in different ways?
As nutritional scientists who have spent our entire careers studying how different foods influence health, our team at Tufts University created a new food rating system, the food compassthat could help consumers and others make informed choices about these types of issues.
Food Rating Systems Explained
Many such systems exist and are widely used around the globe. Each combines facts about different nutritional aspects of foods to provide an overall measure of safety, which can be communicated to consumers through package labels or shelf labels. They can also be used to help guide product reformulations or socially responsible investing goals for investors.
Examples of common systems include Nutri-Score and Health Star Ranking – widely used in Europe, UK, Australia and New Zealand – and ““black box” warning label systemswhich are increasingly used throughout Latin America.
All of these food rating systems have strengths and limitations. Most aim to be simple, using data on just a few nutrients or ingredients. While this is convenient, it can omit other important determinants of health – such as the degree of food processing and fermentation and the presence of various food ingredients or nutrients like Omega 3 and flavonoidsplant compounds that provide a range of health benefits.
Some systems also emphasize older nutritional science. For example, almost all give negative points for total fat, regardless of fat type, and focus only on saturated fat, rather than overall fat quality. Another common shortcoming is not evaluating refined grains and starches, which have metabolic damage similar to added sugars and make up about a third of the calories in the US food supply. And many give negative points for total calories, regardless of their source.
Enter the Food Compass
To fill each of these gaps, in 2021 our research team created the food compass. This system assesses 54 different attributes of foods, selected based on the strength of scientific evidence of their health effects. Food Compass maps and scores these attributes on nine separate dimensions, then combines them into a single score, ranging from 1 (least healthy) to 100 (most healthy). It incorporates new scientific data on multiple food ingredients and nutrients; does not penalize total fat or focus on saturated fat; and gives negative points for processed and refined carbs.
We have now rated 58,000 products using Food Compass and found that works very well in food rating. Foods that are minimally processed and high in bioactives like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, yogurt, and seafood rank high. Other animal foods, such as eggs, milk, cheese, poultry, and meat, usually fall in the middle. Processed foods high in refined grains and sugars, such as refined cereals, breads, crackers and energy bars, as well as processed meats, fall to the bottom.
We found Food Compass particularly useful when comparing seemingly similar foods, such as different breads, different desserts or different mixed dishes. Food Compass also seems to work better than existing rating systems for certain food groups.
For example, it gives lower scores to processed foods high in refined grains and starch and low-fat processed foods that are often marketed as healthy, such as deli meats and hot dogs, fat-free salad dressings, pre-sweetened fruit drinks. , energy drinks and coffees. It also gives higher scores to foods high in unsaturated oils, such as nuts and olive oil. Compared to older scoring systems, these improvements are more aligned with the latest scientific knowledge about the health effects of these foods.
We also assessed how Food Compass relates to key health outcomes at people’s Place. In a national sample of 48,000 Americans, we calculated each person’s individual Food Compass score, ranging from 1 to 100, based on the different foods and beverages they reported consuming.
We found that people whose diets scored higher on Food Compass had better overall health than those with lower scores. This includes less obesity, better blood sugar control, lower blood pressure and better blood cholesterol levels. They also had a lower risk of metabolic syndrome or cancer and a lower risk of death from all causes. For every 10 points higher Food Compass score, a person had about a 7% lower risk of death. These are important results, which show that, on average, eating foods with higher Food Compass scores is linked to many improved health outcomes.
While we believe Food Compass is a significant step up from existing systems, there is still work to be done before it can be rolled out to consumers.
First, we investigate how the scoring algorithm can be further improved. For example, we are considering the most appropriate notation for foods such as certain cereals that are high in whole grains and fiber, but also processed and contain added sugar. And we look at the scoring of different eggs, cheeses, poultry and meat products, which have a wide range of scores but sometimes score a bit lower than might seem intuitive.
Over the coming year, we will refine and improve the system based on our research, the latest evidence and feedback from the scientific community.
Also, more research is needed on how a consumer might understand and use Food Compass in practice. For example, it could be added as label on the front of the package – but would it be useful without more education and context?
Also, while the scoring system ranges from 1 to 100, could it be more accessible if the scores were grouped into broader categories? For example, would a green/yellow/red light system be easier to understand?
And we hope that future versions of Food Compass will contain additional criteria to filter foods for people on special diets, such as low carb, paleo, vegetarian, diabetic friendly, low sodium and others.
The big picture
Food Compass should not be used to replace food-based dietary guidelines and preferences. Raspberries and asparagus do very well, but a diet of just these foods wouldn’t be very healthy. People should look for a Balanced diet in different food groups.
To help you, Food Compass can be very useful for comparing similar products within a food group. For example, someone who prefers eggs for breakfast may search for egg dishes that score higher. Those who prefer grains can look for higher-scoring grains. And even better, Food Compass can help people add other top-rated foods to their plate — like healthy vegetables and oils to eggs, and fruits and nuts to grains — to boost the overall benefits of this meal. for health.
To make use by others as easy as possible, we published full details of the scoring algorithm and the scores of the products reviewed, so anyone can take what we’ve done and use it.
Stay tuned – as we wrap up additional researchwe believe Food Compass will become an important tool in clearing up confusion in the grocery store and helping people make healthier choices.