Eating more foods with higher Food Compass scores led to better long-term health outcomes

The notion that what we eat directly affects our health is ancient; Hippocrates recognized this as early as 400 BC. But it’s getting harder and harder to find healthier foods in supermarket aisles and on restaurant menus. Now researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Tufts have shown that a holistic food profiling system, Food Compass, identifies better overall health and a reduced risk of mortality.

In a publication 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.

Launched in 2021, the Food Compass provides a holistic measure of the total nutritional value of a food, drink or mixed meal. It measures 9 areas of each item, such as: B. Nutrient ratios, food ingredients, vitamins, minerals, degree of processing and additives. Based on ratings of 10,000 commonly consumed products in the US, researchers recommend foods with ratings of 70 or more as foods to promote; Foods with scores of 31-69 should be eaten in moderation; and anything that scores 30 points or less to be consumed sparingly. For this new study, Food Compass was used to rate a person’s overall diet based on the Food Compass scores of all the foods and beverages they consume on a regular basis.

A nutrient profile system is intended to be an objective measure of how healthy a food is. If it does its job, individuals who eat more foods with higher values ​​should have better health.”

Meghan O’Hearn, a graduate student at the Friedman School and first author of the study

For this validation study, researchers used nationally representative dietary records and health data from 47,999 US adults ages 20 to 85 enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999 and 2018. Deaths were determined by linking to the National Death Index (NDI).

Overall, the researchers found that the average Food Compass score for the diet of the nearly 50,000 subjects was just 35.5 out of 100, well below ideal. “One of the most alarming discoveries was how poor the national diet is,” O’Hearn said. “This is a call to action to improve the quality of nutrition in the United States.”

When Food Compass nutritional outcomes were evaluated by individuals against health outcomes, several significant associations were found, even adjusting for other risk factors such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, income, smoking, alcohol use, physical activity, and diabetes status. A higher Food Compass diet score was associated with lower blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol, body mass index, and hemoglobin A1c levels; and lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome and cancer. A higher Food Compass diet score was also associated with a lower risk of death: for every 10 point increase, there was a 7 percent lower risk of death from all causes.

“It can be a bit like the Wild West when it comes to finding healthy foods and beverages,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition and Dean of Policy at the Friedman School. “Our findings support the validity of Food Compass as a tool to guide consumer choices, as well as industry reformulation and public health strategies to identify and promote healthier foods and beverages.”

Compared to existing nutrient profiling systems, Food Compass offers a more innovative and comprehensive assessment of diet quality, researchers say. For example, rather than measuring dietary fat, sodium or fiber content in isolation, a more nuanced and holistic approach is taken by assessing the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats; sodium to potassium; and carbohydrates to dietary fiber.

Food Compass also improves scores for ingredients proven to have protective health effects, such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, seafood, yogurt and vegetable oils; and lowers the score for less healthy ingredients like refined grains, red and processed meats, and ultra-processed foods and additives.

Researchers developed Food Compass with the ever-evolving field of nutritional science in mind, and their multidisciplinary team – composed of researchers with expertise in epidemiology, medicine, economics and biomolecular nutrition – will continue to evaluate and adapt the tool based on cutting-edge nutrition research.

“We know Food Compass isn’t perfect,” Mozaffarian said. “But it provides a more comprehensive, 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 in light of the release of the new US National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. A pillar of this strategy is “to empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices” through actions such as updating food labeling and making it easier to interpret, creating healthier food environments and creating a healthier one food supply.

“This study further validates the Food Compass as a useful tool for defining healthy foods. We hope the Food Compass algorithm – which is publicly available to all – can help with front-of-pack labeling and sourcing decisions in workplaces, hospitals and school canteens, healthier eating incentive programs in public health and federal nutrition programs, reformulations in the industry and government policies surrounding food,” said O’Hearn.

Researchers plan to work on a simplified version that requires less nutrient intake, as well as versions tailored to specific conditions, such as diabetes and pregnancy, or to the populations of other nations. The research team is also interested in adding Food Compass domains based on other aspects of food, such as: B. ecological sustainability, social justice or animal welfare.

“We look forward to continuing to find ways to improve the Food Compass system and make it more accessible to more users to eliminate the confusion about healthier choices,” said Mozaffarian.


Magazine reference:

O’Hearn, M. et al. (2022) Validation of Food Compass with Healthy Eating, Cardiometabolic Health, and Mortality in US Adults, 1999–2018. nature communication.


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