Food-scoring algorithm aims to make heart-healthful eating easier

A colorful assortment of fruits and vegetables

To help people make heart-healthful food choices, researchers created an algorithm that ranks the nutrient density of foods, meals, and beverages. In this system, fruits and vegetables scored highest, with dozens, like dark leafy greens, oranges, and berries, earning 100 points, while sugary items, like marshmallows, breakfast pastries, and soda, came in at 1. Food Compass calculations are more advanced than traditional nutrient-ranking systems, but the scores it gave to 8,032 food items resemble what many people view as foods to consume regularly (100-70), in moderation (69-31), and minimally (30-1). The research, which was partially supported by NHLBI, published in Nature Food.  

To objectively measure the healthfulness of common foods, researchers grouped 54 food characteristics into nine categories. One focused on nutrient ratios. Think potassium: sodium, fiber: carbohydrates, and unsaturated fat: saturated fat. Others accounted for single features, like vitamins, minerals, fats, fiber, protein, and phytochemicals, including carotenoids and polyphenols. Additional metrics included food ingredients, additives, and processing. This way, the researchers explained, a fermented food wasn’t considered ultra-processed, like fried foods. And nutrient-dense foods, like red peppers and carrots, earned points for having antioxidants.  

In addition to helping individuals plan meals, the researchers envision the tool could help organizations, like schools, nursing homes, and workplaces, with meal planning. It could also support food manufacturers and researchers. However, they caution that as science evolves, the metrics will need to adapt, too. For example, they couldn’t assess a food’s healthfulness based on naturally occurring ingredients compared to fortified nutrients. In other cases, context may help. For example, beverages, which varied from 1-100, were scored alone but weren’t considered as part of larger dietary patterns to replace less-healthful options.