Are nutrient profiling systems more detrimental than beneficial?

September 8, 2022

A new health assessment tool that attempts to assist customers in making food decisions has emerged on the market, or should we say, in the grocery aisle. Aiming to increase nutrient intake is a worthwhile endeavor, but developing a nutritious eating plan is not as simple as avoiding foods with a low score and eating more of those that rank higher, dietitians say. Experts warn of the potential pitfalls of putting too much stock in numerical evaluations. And while a ranking system that makes sense of what to eat and drink and how frequently sounds promising, experts warn of the potential pitfalls in doing so.

Given the amount of labeling (nutrition facts panels, marketing claims, and "free-from" claims) already present on our food, checking to see if our food choices align with a ranking system may only add to the confusion or, worse, act as a catalyst for disordered eating, according to some experts.

"As a dietitian who practices using an intuitive eating approach to nutrition, I tend to focus more on behaviors and relationships surrounding food, rather than numbers (calories, macros, etc)," says Stephanie Dorfman, MS, RDN. "Various types of nutrition labeling systems, although very informative for consumers, tend to promote the idea that there are 'good' foods and 'bad' foods, leading to disordered or restrictive eating behaviors."

About Food Compass

Although Food Compass is the most modern food scoring system available, you have undoubtedly seen other, comparable signs at the grocery shop if the idea sounds familiar. For instance, the star-based ranking system Guiding Stars rates foods as either good, better, or best by giving them one, two, or three stars. The system aims to increase consumption of vitamins, minerals, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids while reducing consumption of saturated and trans fats, as well as added sugar, sodium, and artificial colors. Based on nutrient density, the now-defunct NuVal system—which is more akin to Food Compass—rated foods on a scale of 1 to 100.

The majority of fruits and vegetables are ranked by the Food Compass system with nearly flawless scores, whereas fruits and vegetables that are canned or processed with fat have points deducted from them. The approach assigns rankings based on a variety of variables, but it seems to ignore some of the subtleties of nutrition in the actual world. For example, canned tomatoes may be more nutrient-dense than their fresh equivalents. Other foods, like canned pumpkin, may benefit from the inclusion of lipids to help with the absorption of their vitamin content.

"In general, I am not a huge fan of food scoring systems because it implies 'good' and 'bad' foods," says Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN a registered dietitian and chef with Culinary Nutrition Studio. "This, in turn, may increase guilt or shame around eating and disordered eating behaviors. It may also increase orthorexia or misinformation around foods that are healthy instead of nutrition education."

Brown rice, for instance, can be seen as "healthy," but Gellman stresses that portion quantity must also be taken into account. According to the circumstances, eating too much brown rice can turn it from a nutritious to an indulgent food. Increasing nutrient density is not simply dependent on a numerical system, and having a thoughtful connection with food overall does not ascribe morality to what you eat. According to nutritionists, adopting a "all foods fit" approach may triumph over any labeling scheme.

Nevertheless, the educational aspect of food grading systems is a benefit. When it comes to organizing your snacks and meals, knowing what nutrients are in your food can be helpful, but it's also important to remember that all foods can be a part of your eating plan.

"I do appreciate how the Food Compass incorporates all aspects of the food item into its scoring system—vitamins, minerals, ingredients, additives—which can be a great learning tool for consumers but should not be the end-all, be-all, for their food choices," says Dorfman. "Making peace with all foods is an important step toward intuitive eating, and any system that labels food as good for you, or bad for you, can prevent you from rejecting the diet mentality and healing your relationship with food."

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