The Food Compass – Let science guide your food choices

By Mihaela Bozukova, PhD Candidate in Computational Genomics

“Eating healthy” is a vague term. Nutrition advice can often be confusing and sometimes even conflicting. Wouldn’t it be convenient to have an easy scoring system to quickly assess how beneficial a food or beverage is for our health?

Scientists from Tufts University in the US have developed the “Food Compass”, a nutrient profiling system that scores food based on various attributes. The Food Compass was reported in the journal Nature Food in the past month and aims to provide a guide towards healthier food choices.

Figure 1. The Food Compass scores foods and beverages based on 54 attributes, grouped into nine health-related categories.

The Food Compass scores foods and beverages based on 54 attributes informed by existing nutrient profiling systems as well as national and international dietary guidelines. The researchers also considered scientific evidence for links to chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer. The resulting 54 attributes used to assess each food item were grouped into 9 different categories (Figure 1). Scores from each of these categories are combined into an overall score ranging from 1 (least healthy) to 100 (most healthy). Foods scoring above 70 are encouraged, while consumption of foods with a score below 30 should be minimized.

The researchers applied the Food Compass to score over 8,000 foods, beverages and mixed meals drawn from a database with products commonly consumed in the U.S (Figure 2). The top scoring food groups were legumes, nuts and seeds (78.6) followed by fruits (73.9) and vegetables (69.1). Savory snacks and sweet desserts were at the other end of the spectrum with an average score of 16.4.

Figure 2. The Food Compass was used to score over 8,000 foods and beverages commonly consumed in the U.S. The diagram shows the distribution of Food Compass scores for different product categories.

The Food Compass also incorporates a wide variety of attributes such as macronutrients, vitamins and minerals, as well as processing characteristics like fermentation or frying. This is in contrast to existing nutrient scoring systems which usually focus on a few key nutrients. Additionally, the Food Compass is standardized to consistently score all foods and beverages using the same algorithm. This is especially important for mixed dishes consisting of multiple components. Other nutrient scoring systems like the Nutri-Score (used in some European countries) or the Health Star Rating (used in Australia and New Zealand) use different algorithms depending on the food group, which creates inconsistencies in the scoring.

The research team hopes that the Food Compass will help consumers make healthier food choices, but also provide guidance and incentive for policy makers and manufacturers to produce healthier foods. However, further refinements are needed before the Food Compass can be used for front-of-package labeling. Components such as added artificial flavorings, food coloring and high fructose corn syrup are important to consider in the scoring. The researchers are currently collecting this additional data with the plan of incorporating it into a future version of the Food Compass.

Thus, the Food Compass will evolve as new data and research findings become available. Considering the variety of cuisines worldwide, testing the Food Compass on products outside the U.S. would certainly be interesting. For now, the Food Compass certainly gives us something new to chew on.

Peer-edited by Lex Hurley, MPH, PhD Candidate in Health Behavior

Photo credit: Header image, all other photos created by Mihaela Bozukova

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