The idea that what we eat directly affects our health is old; Hippocrates recognized it as early as 400 BC. But identifying healthier foods in the supermarket aisle and on restaurant menus is increasingly difficult. Now, researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts have shown that a holistic food profiling system, Food Compass, identifies better overall health and lower mortality risk.
In an article published in Nature Communication on November 22, researchers assessed whether adults who ate more foods with higher Food Compass scores had better long-term health outcomes and found that they did.
Introduced in 2021, Food Compass provides a holistic measure of the overall nutritional value of a food, drink or composite meal. It measures nine areas of each element, such as nutrient ratios, food-based ingredients, vitamins, minerals, extent of processing, and additives. Based on scores of 10,000 commonly consumed products in the United States, researchers recommend foods with scores of 70 or higher as foods to encourage; foods with scores of 31 to 69 to be consumed in moderation; and anything that scores 30 or less should be consumed sparingly. For this new study, Food Compass was used to score a person’s entire diet, based on the Food Compass scores of all the foods and beverages they consume on a regular basis.
“A nutrient profiling system is intended to be an objective measure of a food’s health. If it achieves its goal, people who eat more foods with higher scores should have better health,” says Meghan O’Hearn, PhD student at the Friedman School and the study’s lead author.
For this validation study, researchers used nationally representative food records and health data from 47,999 U.S. adults ages 20 to 85 who were enrolled between 1999 and 2018 in the National Health Survey. health and nutrition (NHANES). Deaths were determined by linkage with the National Death Index (NDI).
Overall, the researchers found that the average Food Compass score for the diets of nearly 50,000 subjects was just 35.5 out of 100, well below the ideal. “One of the most alarming findings was how poor the national average diet is,” O’Hearn said. “This is a call to action to improve the quality of food in the United States.”
When people’s Food Compass diet scores were assessed against health outcomes, several significant relationships were observed, even adjusting for other risk factors like age, gender, race, ethnicity ethnicity, education, income, smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity and diabetes status. A higher Food Compass dietary score was associated with lower blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol, body mass index, and hemoglobin A1c levels; and a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome and cancer. A higher Food Compass dietary score was also associated with a lower mortality risk: for every 10-point increase, there was a 7% lower risk of death from all causes.
“When looking for healthy foods and beverages, it can be a bit of a wild west,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer professor of nutrition and dean of policy at the Friedman School. “Our results support the validity of Food Compass as a tool to guide consumer decisions, as well as industry reformulations and public health strategies to identify and encourage healthier foods and beverages.”
Compared to existing nutrient profiling systems, Food Compass provides a more innovative and comprehensive assessment of nutritional quality, according to the researchers. For example, rather than measuring dietary fat, sodium or fiber levels in isolation, it takes a more nuanced and holistic view, assessing the ratio between saturated and unsaturated fats; sodium to potassium; and fiber carbohydrates.
Food Compass also improves scores for ingredients shown to have protective health effects, such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, seafood, yoghurts and vegetable oils; and lowers scores for less healthy ingredients like refined grains, red and processed meat, and ultra-processed foods and additives.
Researchers designed Food Compass with the ever-evolving field of nutritional science in mind, and their multidisciplinary team, comprised of researchers specializing in epidemiology, medicine, economics, and biomolecular nutrition, will continue to assess and adapt the tool according to the most specific data. cutting-edge nutritional research.
“We know Food Compass isn’t perfect,” Mozaffarian said. “But, it provides a more complete and holistic assessment of a food’s nutritional value than existing systems, and these new findings support its validity by showing that it predicts better health.”
These findings are timely given the release of the new US National Hunger, Nutrition and Health Strategy. One of the pillars of this strategy is to “empower all consumers to make and access healthy choices” through measures such as updating food labeling and making it easier to use. interpretation, creating healthier food environments and creating a healthier food supply.
“This study further validates Food Compass as a useful tool for defining healthy foods. We hope that the Food Compass algorithm, available to everyone, can help guide front-of-package labeling, product choices, and food choices. procurement in workplace, hospital, and school cafeterias; program incentives for healthier eating in federal health care and nutrition programs; industry reformulations; and government policies on supply,” O’Hearn said.
The researchers plan to work on a simplified version requiring less nutrient intake, as well as versions adapted to specific conditions such as diabetes and pregnancy or to populations in other countries. The research team also wants to add Food Compass domains based on other aspects of food, such as environmental sustainability, social justice, or animal welfare.
“We look forward to continuing to find ways to improve the Food Compass system and bring it to more users to help clear up confusion about healthier choices,” Mozaffarian said.
Meghan O’Hearn et al, Validation of Food Compass with Healthy Eating, Cardiometabolic Health, and Mortality in American Adults, 1999-2018, Nature Communication (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-34195-8
Provided by Tufts University
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