Determining what constitutes healthy food and drink is becoming increasingly difficult due to a sea of conflicting claims on the internet.
But scientists say they have now developed a new “food compass” that will solve this problem for you.
Invented by experts at Tufts University, the chart lists more than 8,000 foods, drinks, and combined meals such as pizza.
Food Compass’ nutrient profile system scores foods based on their total health benefits and harms of possible 100 points.
Under the system, raw fruits such as raspberries are at the top of the chart for their nutritional value, while instant noodles, famous for being extremely high in sodium, score a measly one point.
Surprisingly, white rice with a soy sauce and an ice cream sundae are on par in terms of health, both scoring poorly on the nutritional scale.
This is likely because white rice is a fast-acting carbohydrate, similar to the sugars in ice cream, and with fewer nutrients and less fiber than brown rice, which ranks higher on the scale.
Another surprise is that pasta only scores one point higher than a cheeseburger.
As with rice, this is likely due to plain pasta being low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber compared to the whole-wheat version.
The scientists say the chart is designed to help consumers make healthier choices, encourage companies to make healthier products and provide public health authorities with a labeling system.
A selection of food and drinks and how they score under the Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System
Under the Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System, people have to ditch the energy drinks like Monster, which scores a one, and opt for carrot juice with a score of 100.
Fruity berries scored between 99-100, while a McDonald’s cheeseburger scored a meager eight
The top five foods and drinks in the system were raw raspberries, salted almonds, vegetable curry, tuna salad and light mayonnaise.
These foods scored highly for their vitamins and minerals and their ratios of fiber and protein compared to negative factors such as bad fats.
At the other end of the scale, the biggest food sinners were puddings, instant soups, fast food cheeseburgers, cornflakes and a meaty pizza.
It was found that these foods have too many negative health effects compared to their nutritional value and could contribute to diet-related diseases such as obesity and heart disease if consumed too often.
Using Food Compass, eating foods and drinks with a score above 70 should be encouraged, consumed in moderation between 31 and 69, and anything lower than 30 should be avoided.
The system assigns scores based on 54 ‘nutritional characteristics’, divided into nine categories related to food-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and cancer.
This includes malnutrition, especially for mothers, young children and the elderly.
Food Compass scoring system examples of the best and the worst
Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System claims to provide a better idea of which foods and drinks are healthy compared to other systems.
The method is to rate foods on 54 aspects related to human health, both positive and negative, and arrive at a total score.
The system recommends eating and drinking regularly over 70, moderately over 31 and moderately under 30.
Good: Carrot juice (100), a low-fat cappuccino (73)
Bad: Monster, Powerade and Gatorade energy and sports drinks (1)
Good: Kellogg’s Raisin Bran (72)
Bad: Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (15)
Good: Raspberries (100)
Bad: Fruit dessert with cream and/or pudding (17)
Good: Vegetable curry (90)
Bad: McDonald’s Cheeseburger (8)
Savory snacks and sweet desserts
Good: Almonds, covered in chocolate (78)
Bad: Milky Way Chocolate Bar and Skittles (1)
The nine categories are nutrient rations that assess aspects such as fat and sodium, vitamin content, mineral content, food ingredients, attributes such as the presence of nitrites, processing level, fat, fiber and protein content, and finally the presence of phytochemicals which are chemical compounds found in prevent plants.
The makers of Food Compass, from Tufts University in the US, claimed it has advantages over existing health scoring systems, allowing people to make more balanced choices.
In the journal Nature Food, they wrote that Food Compass considers both the healthy and unhealthy factors in food, while other systems focus only on the negatives.
Some systems that tell people to avoid snacks in general may keep people from eating things like sweet potato chips, while they rank as healthy as the bulgur wheat, according to the Food Compass system, both with a score of 69.
Another touted benefit is that Food Compass considers the total nutritional value of a whole food, such as a pizza.
This is in comparison to systems that have separate scores for wheat, meat, and cheese, but not one that scores a final product containing all three.
Of the 8,032 foods, the average score on the compass was 43.2.
The lowest scoring category were snacks and sweet desserts with an average of 16.4.
Unsurprisingly, big winners were fruits with an average of 73.9, vegetables with an average of 69.1 and legumes, nuts and seeds, with an average of 78.6.
In terms of meat, seafood was the healthiest option with an average score of 67, poultry in second place with an average of 42.7 and beef last with an average of 24.9.
The makers of Food Compass hope it will encourage the food industry to develop healthier snacks and nutrition by developing products with higher nutritional value.
Lead author of the system, Professor Dariush Mozaffarian, said Food Compass should clear up confusion about what people should eat and drink.
“Once you get beyond ‘eat your veggies, avoid soda,’ the public is pretty confused about identifying healthier choices in the grocery store, cafeteria and restaurant,” he said.
“Consumers, policy makers and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone to healthier choices.”
It is not known whether companies or public health authorities have applied for the Food Compass system.
In the UK there is a voluntary traffic light system that is now a familiar sight on the front of ready-to-eat food on supermarket shelves.
Ten years ago, ministers urged manufacturers to use packaging labels in an attempt to tackle rising obesity rates by labeling products high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.
However, critics at the time warned it wouldn’t work because it was too simplistic, with foods containing beneficial fats, like fatty fish, falling into the system, while others, like carbonated drinks, getting a free pass.
But a recent international analysis of the public health implications of health warnings on the front of packs has supported the system.
Researchers at Queen Mary University in London found that traffic light systems encouraged people to choose healthier meals and drinks.
The results prompted activists to call for an extension of the British system, which is currently voluntary, to include restaurant menus.
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 servings of different fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Basic meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole grain
• 30 grams of fiber per day: This is equivalent to eating all of the following: 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 whole-grain cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of whole-wheat bread and large baked potato with skin
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks) and choose options with less fat and less sugar
• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 servings of fish per week, one of which is fatty)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6 g of salt and 20 g of saturated fat for women or 30 g for men per day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide