Analyze which foods are healthy and which are less so with a new classification system

                                    by Dariush Mozaffarian, Jeffrey B. Blumberg, Paul F. Jacques, and Renata Micha, The Conversation

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain


Many people aim to start the year with healthier food choices. But how do you choose between seemingly similar foods, snacks or drinks? How does a bagel with cream cheese compare to toast topped with avocado, for example? Or a protein-based smoothie versus a fruit-filled smoothie? Or two chicken dishes, prepared in different ways?

As nutrition scientists who have spent our entire careers studying how different foods influence health, our team at Tufts University has created a new food classification system, the Food Compass, that could help consumers and others to make informed decisions about these types of questions.

Food classification systems explained

Many such systems exist and are widely used around the world. Each combines facts about different nutritional aspects of foods to provide an overall measure of health, which can be communicated to consumers through package labels or shelf labels. They can also be used to help guide product reformulations or socially conscious investment goals for investors.

Examples of common systems include the Nutri-Score and Health Star Rating, widely used in Europe, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and the increasingly used ‘black box’ warning label systems throughout Latin America.

All of these food classification systems have strengths and limitations. Most aim to be simple, using data on just a few nutrients or ingredients. While this is practical, it may miss other important determinants of health, such as the degree of food processing and fermentation and the presence of various food ingredients or nutrients such as omega-3s and flavonoids, plant compounds that offer a wide variety of health benefits.

Some systems also emphasize older nutritional science. For example, almost all give negative points for total fat, regardless of the type of fat, and focus only on saturated fat, rather than overall fat quality. Another common shortcoming is failing to evaluate refined grains and starches, which have similar metabolic damage as added sugars and account for about one-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 address each of these gaps, in 2021 our research team created the Food Compass. This system evaluates 54 different food attributes, selected based on the strength of scientific evidence for their health effects. Food Compass maps and scores these attributes across nine different dimensions and then combines them into a single score, ranging from 1 (unhealthiest) to 100 (healthiest). It incorporates new science on multiple food ingredients and nutrients; does not penalize total fat or focus on saturated fat; and gives negative points for processing and refined carbohydrates.

Millions of Americans are overweight but malnourished.

We’ve now evaluated 58,000 products using Food Compass and found that it generally performs very well in scoring foods. Low-processed, bioactive foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, yogurt, and seafood score at the top. Other animal foods, such as eggs, milk, cheese, poultry, and meat, tend to score in the middle. Processed foods high in grains and refined sugars, such as refined cereals, bread, crackers and energy bars, and processed meats fall at the bottom.

We’ve found Food Compass to be particularly useful when comparing seemingly similar foods, such as different breads, different desserts, or different meal combinations. Food Compass also appears to perform better than existing classification systems for certain food groups.

For example, it gives lower scores to processed foods that are high in refined grains and starches and to low-fat processed foods that are often marketed as healthy, such as sausages and hot dogs, fat-free salad dressings, fruit drinks pre-sweetened , energy drinks and coffees. It also gives higher scores to foods rich in unsaturated oils, such as nuts and olive oil. Compared to older classification systems, these improvements are more in line with the latest science on the health effects of these foods.

We also assessed how Food Compass relates to people’s main health outcomes. 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 eating.

We found that people whose diets scored higher on the 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-point higher Food Compass score, a person had about a 7% lower risk of dying. These are important findings, showing that, on average, eating foods with higher Food Compass scores is associated with numerous improved health outcomes.


While we believe Food Compass represents a significant advance over existing systems, more work is needed before it can be rolled out to consumers.

As a step, we are investigating how the scoring algorithm can be further improved. For example, we are considering the most appropriate score for foods such as certain cereals that are high in whole grains and fiber, but also processed and with added sugar. And we’re looking at the score for different eggs, cheeses, poultry and meat products, which have a wide range of scores, but sometimes score a little lower than might make intuitive sense.

Over the next year we will be refining and improving the system based on our research, the latest evidence and feedback from the scientific community.

Whole grains are much better for you than refined grains.

In addition, more research is needed on how a consumer might understand and use Food Compass in practice. For example, it could be added as a front-of-package label, but would that 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, could a green/yellow/red traffic light system be easier to understand?

And we hope that future versions of Food Compass may contain additional criteria to filter foods for people on special diets, such as low-carb, paleo, vegetarian, diabetic-friendly, low-sodium, and others.

The general picture

Food Compass should not be used to replace food-based dietary guidelines and preferences. Raspberries and asparagus make a good point, but a diet of only these foods would not be very healthy. People should seek a balanced diet between different food groups.

To help, Food Compass can be most useful for comparing similar products within a food group. For example, someone who prefers eggs for breakfast might search for higher-rated egg dishes. Those who prefer cereals can look for cereals with a higher rating. And even better, Food Compass can help people add other top-rated foods to their plate, such as vegetables and healthy oils to eggs and fruits and nuts to grains, to increase the overall health benefits of this food

To make it as easy as possible for others to use them, we’ve published all the details of the scoring algorithm, and the scores of the products we’ve reviewed, so that everyone can take what we’ve done and use it.

Stay tuned: As we conduct additional research, we believe Food Compass will become an important tool to clear up confusion at the grocery store and help people make healthier choices.

Provided by The Conversation

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