The idea that what we eat directly affects our health is ancient; Hippocrates recognized this as far back as 400 B.C. But, identifying healthier foods in the supermarket aisle and on restaurant menus is increasingly challenging. Now, researchers at 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 risk for mortality.
In a paper published in Nature Communications 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, beverage, or mixed meal. It measures 9 domains of each item, 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 U.S., researchers recommend foods with scores of 70 or above as foods to encourage; foods with scores of 31-69 to be eaten in moderation; and anything that scores 30 or below to 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 regularly consume.
“A nutrient profiling system is intended to be an objective measure of how healthy a food is. If it’s achieving its purpose, then individuals who eat more foods with higher scores should have better health,” said Meghan O’Hearn, a doctoral candidate at the Friedman School and the study’s lead author.
For this validation study, researchers used nationally representative dietary records and health data from 47,999 U.S. adults aged 20-85 who were enrolled between 1999-2018 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Deaths were determined through linkage with the National Death Index (NDI).
Overall, researchers found that the mean Food Compass score for the diets of the nearly 50,000 subjects was only 35.5 out of 100, well below ideal. “One of the most alarming discoveries was just how poor the national average diet is,” said O’Hearn. “This is a call for actions to improve diet quality in the United States.”