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It’s not always easy to distinguish which foods are healthy and which are less healthy – a new rating system aims to illuminate the process.

(Speech is an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.)

            Dariush Mozaffarian, Tufts University;  Jeffrey B. Blumberg, Tufts University;  Paul F. Jacques, Tufts University and Renata Micha, Tufts University</p><div id="paywall">            <p>(CHAT) Many people aim to start the year with healthier food choices.  But how do you choose between seemingly similar foods, snacks or drinks?  For example, how does a cream cheese bagel compare to toast with avocado on top?  Or a protein-based shake compared to a fruit-packed smoothie?  Or two chicken dishes prepared in different ways?
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As nutrition scientists who have spent their entire careers studying how different foods affect health, our team at Tufts University has created the Food Compass, a new food rating system that can help consumers and others make informed choices about such questions.

            Food grading systems explained

            Many such systems exist and are widely used around the world.  Each combines facts about different nutritional aspects of food to provide consumers with an overall measure of health that can be communicated through package labels or shelf labels.  They can also be used to guide product reformulations or socially conscious investment goals for investors.
            Examples of common systems are the Nutri-Score and Health Star Rating, which are widely used in Europe, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and the "black box" warning label systems increasingly used in Latin America.
            All such food grading systems have strengths and limitations.  Most aim to be simple, using data on only a few nutrients or ingredients.  While this is practical, it may overlook other important determinants of health, such as the degree of food processing and fermentation and the presence of various food components or nutrients such as omega-3s and flavonoids, plant compounds that offer various health benefits.
            Some systems also highlight older nutritional science.  For example, nearly all score negative for total fat, regardless of fat type, and focus solely on saturated fat rather than overall fat quality.  Another common shortcoming is the underestimation of refined grains and starches, which have similar metabolic harms as added sugars and represent about one-third of the calories in the U.S. food supply.  And many give minus 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 characteristics of selected foods based on the strength of scientific evidence for their health effects.  Food Compass maps and scores these traits across nine different dimensions, and then combines them into a single score ranging from 1 (least healthy) to 100 (healthiest).  Combines new science on multiple food ingredients and nutrients;  does not penalize total fat or focus on saturated fat;  and gives negative scores for processed and refined carbohydrates.
            We've now evaluated 58,000 products using Food Compass and found it performs very well in scoring foods overall.  Minimally processed, bioactive-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, yogurt, and seafood rank at the top.  Other animal foods such as eggs, milk, cheese, poultry, and meat are usually in the middle.  Refined grains, such as breads, crackers, and energy bars, and processed foods and processed meats rich in sugars rank at the bottom.
            We have found the Food Compass to be particularly useful when comparing seemingly similar food items, 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 refined grains and starch-rich processed foods, 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 rich in unsaturated fats, such as nuts and olive oil.  Compared to older rating systems, these improvements are more in line with the latest science on the health effects of these foods.
            We also evaluated how Food Compass relates to significant health outcomes in humans.  In a national sample of 48,000 Americans, we calculated each person's Food Compass score, which ranged from 1 to 100, based on the different foods and beverages they reported eating.
            We found that people who scored higher on diets had better overall health than those with lower scores, according to Food Compass.  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 an approximately 7% lower risk of death.  These are key findings that show that, on average, eating foods with higher Food Compass scores is linked to multiple improved health outcomes.




            Fine adjustment

            While we believe Food Compass represents a significant improvement over existing systems, more work needs to be done before it is available to consumers.
            As a step, we explore how the scoring algorithm can be further improved.  For example, we consider optimal ratings for foods that are high in whole grains and fiber, such as certain grains, but also contain processed and added sugars.  And we look at scores of different eggs, cheese, poultry and meat products, they have a wide range of ratings, but sometimes score slightly lower than what might intuitively make sense.
            Over the next year, we will refine and refine the system based on our research, the latest evidence, and feedback from the scientific community.
            Additionally, more research is needed on how a consumer can understand and use the Food Compass in practice.  For example, it could be added as a pre-tag of the package - but would that help without further training and context?
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<!-- e src/business/widgets/hearst/collection/widget.tpl --></aside></aside>            Also, while the scoring system ranges from 1 to 100, would it be more accessible if the scores were grouped into broader categories?  For example, might the green/yellow/red traffic light system be easier to understand?
            And we hope that future versions of the Food Compass may include additional criteria for filtering foods for people following special diets such as low-carb, paleo, vegetarian, diabetes-friendly, low-sodium, and others.




            big picture

            The Food Compass should not be used to replace food-based dietary guidelines and preferences.  Raspberries and asparagus work really well – but a diet consisting solely of these foods wouldn't be very healthy.  People should seek a balanced diet across different food groups.
            To assist, the Food Compass can be most useful for comparing similar products within a food group.  For example, someone who prefers eggs for breakfast may look for higher-rated egg dishes.  Those who prefer grains can look for grains with higher ratings.  And even better, Food Compass can help people add top-rated foods like fruit and nuts to their plate, like eggs, and vegetables and healthy fats to boost that meal's overall health benefits.
            To make it as easy as possible for others to use, we've published all the details of the scoring algorithm and the scores of the evaluated products so anyone can buy and use what we're doing.
            Stay tuned - as we complete additional research, we believe the Food Compass will become an important tool to clear up confusion in the grocery store and help people make healthier choices.
            This article has been republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation.  Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/parsing-what-foods-are-healthy-and-what-are-less-so-isnt-always-straightforward-a-new-rating-system-aims- to solve the mystery-192831.
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