Are some foods as healthy as you think? New ‘compass’ scores food, guides consumer choices

Movies, TV shows, music albums, hotels, restaurants and many other things have rating systems that can help consumers decide which product is best for them. Foods are no exception.

The Food Compass, a brand-new nutrient profiling system developed by a team at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, incorporates 54 food attributes across nine different domains — nutrient ratios, vitamins, minerals, food-based ingredients, additives, processing, fiber and protein, lipids and phytochemicals — to generate a score that ranks individual food items or dishes from a scale of 1 (least healthful) to 100 (most healthful).

Nutrient profiling is a widely used tool that helps consumers assess their dietary intakes, guiding food companies in product reformulation and influencing food policies such as package labeling and taxation. The notion of nutrient profiling is not new, but many of the existing systems have important limitations.

“They didn’t always use the updated, current science. They tend to focus on just a handful of nutrients,” Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and lead author of the study, said. “We wanted to create a scoring system that was science-based … and that took a much more holistic view of foods.”

To build the Food Compass, the researchers performed a systematic review of databases, guidelines and existing literature on foods and nutrition to identify the 54 attributes that go into their algorithm, and how each attribute should be scored.

Naglaa El-Abbadi, nutritional epidemiologist and co-author of the study, emphasized that the scores are based completely on scientific evidence, particularly on the diet-health relationship.

“[The researchers of this study] came in having done large-scale assessments of specific nutrients associated with chronic diseases or diseases of public health concern related to diabetes … increased cancer risk … and cardiovascular disease,” El-Abbadi said.

After compiling the information, the researchers translated their findings into an algorithm that generates a Food Compass Score (FCS), which is an average score of the different included domains. An FCS greater than 70 indicates foods or beverages that are more healthful, while the authors recommend that foods with a score of 31–69 be consumed moderately and foods with an FCS less than 30 be minimized.

Almost all raw fruits, such as raspberries and avocados, scored 100 on the Food Compass. High-sugar fruits — like bananas and figs — had a lower FCS, but still fell in the highly recommended range. Scores for grains ranged from 95 for whole-oat cereals to 1 for pita bread.

Among processed foods, certain types of cheeses had FCS between 29 and 44, low-sodium bacon scored 31 and cured pork chops scored 20. However, some processed foods also had a higher score, such as asparagus with 100 and salted mixed nuts with 97. Candies, white bread, hot dogs and soft drinks all received scores of less than 30.

Olive, sesame and peanut oils received high FCS in the 80s but a relatively moderate score in Health Star Ratings, a commonly used nutrient profiling system in Australia and New Zealand. 

Jeffrey Blumberg, a pharmacologist at the Friedman School and co-author of the study, explained why discrepancies exist between nutrient profiling systems.

“Where things differ, there is disagreement and discordance,” Blumberg said. “It’s really easy to understand why, because their algorithm is different.”

Blumberg said that other nutrient profiling systems that have fewer scoring categories may list associated fats in general as bad, and thus even healthy unsaturated fats — like olive oil — may receive lower scores. He noted that the Food Compass takes a more extensive approach and includes a wider range of factors, including some that are not commonly considered, like processing and additives.

“This is all a balance between positive and negative attributes,” Blumberg said.

Marie-Eve Labonté, a dietician and nutritionist at Université Laval who was not involved with the study, commented on the benefits of having a universal score — like the Food Compass — as opposed to distinct scoring methods for different food or nutrient groups.

“In the field of nutrient profiling, we can see sometimes some models in which there are up to, for example, over 50 food categories with different criteria, so I would say that using a uniform scoring for all foods and beverages makes things, for sure, simpler,” Labonté said. “It makes it  feasible to compare the nutritional quality of not only similar products but also products from two different food groups.”

But Labonté also observed that there may be constraints when the data required to compute the score is lacking. Because the Food Compass is so comprehensive, it is sometimes difficult to fulfill every requirement that goes into the algorithm. For instance, in many countries, the data for phytochemicals — plant-based compounds that are linked to potential health benefits — is missing or not readily accessible.

Mozaffarian, El-Abbadi and Blumberg all cited areas in which the science is not as complete or up to date as a challenge in the development of the Food Compass.

“A lot of the important information is not available all at one place,” Mozaffarian said “For example, we wanted information on many additives, like high fructose corn syrup or artificial colors or artificial sweeteners, but in the national USDA database, those additives are not available.”

Nutrient profiling scores need to be contextualized by dietary patterns, frequency of consumption, social and cultural background and personal perceptions, according to the study authors. In the future, experts say they are trying to make the Food Compass to be more considerate of individual health and dietary restrictions by taking into account medical histories and specific diets.

“We hope that this advance in science will help inform the global debate about healthy nutrition and will help people make healthier choices,” Mozaffarian said.