Nutrient Profiling Systems—More Harmful Than Helpful?

There is a new health assessment tool on the block—or should we say in the grocery aisle—that is meant to help people decide what to eat. Even though a ranking system that tells you what to eat and drink and how often sounds like a good idea, experts warn against putting too much faith in numbers.

Dietitians say that trying to get more nutrients is a good idea, but making a healthy eating plan isn’t as easy as avoiding foods with low scores and eating more of those with high scores.

Stopping to check that our food choices fit up with a ranking system could add to our confusion or, even create disordered eating, given all the labels (nutrition facts panels, marketing claims, “free-from” claims) that are already on our items.

“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.”

What is Food Compass?

Food Compass is a new way to rate foods, but if the idea sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen similar signs in the grocery store. The goal of the system is to help people eat more minerals, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and whole grains while eating less saturated and trans fats, sodium, added sugar, sodium, and colors made in a lab. The NuVal system, which is now defunct, was more like Food Compass, and ranked foods from 1 to 100 based on how many nutrients they had.

Most raw fruits and vegetables get a near-perfect score on the Food Compass, while vegetables and fruits that have been canned or cooked with fat lose points. Even though the system ranks many things, it doesn’t seem to take into account all of the different ways that nutrition works in the real world.

Some things, like canned tomatoes, can be healthier than their fresh versions. Some things, like canned pumpkins, might benefit from fats because they help the body absorb the vitamins they have.

“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.”

While brown rice may be “healthy,” Gellman says the amount eaten is just as important. She warns that consuming too much brown rice might turn it from a healthy option to an unhealthy one.

An overall attentive connection with food does not attribute morality to what you consume, and increasing nutrient density does not require a numerical system. The nutritionists suggest that the “all foods fit” approach may be more important than any labeling scheme.

However, the educational aspect of food scoring systems is a plus. Though knowing the nutrient content of your food can be helpful when arranging snacks and main courses, it is equally important to remember that any item can be incorporated into your diet.

“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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