Pizza out, seafood in: The new food scale set to revolutionise our diets

woman eating cake
Yeah, it probably doesn't score that highly on the new scale. (Getty Images)

Many of us piled on a few pounds in lockdown, and are still clinging to that extra padding. There's a thousands diets we could try, but deciding whether to go with low-carb, portion control, 5:2 or Slimming World is confusing, and with endless conflicting information about nutrition (eggs are bad. No wait, eggs are good!) it's easier simply to embrace the lard.

Now, however, US scientists from Tufts University, Massachusetts, have developed 'Food Compass', a simple scale which 'scores' foods on their overall health properties, rather than calories, fat or sugar content.

The team, from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, hopes the new system will help consumers, manufacturers and caterers "choose and produce healthier foods" and encourage officials to make "sound public nutrition policy."

Unhealthy foods get a lower score out of 100, while healthier choices score highly. The researchers scored foods drawn from a database of over 8000 on 54 different factors across nine different areas of health impact.

Healthy and unhealthy food background from fruits and vegetables vs fast food, sweets and pastry top view. Diet and detox against calorie and overweight lifestyle concept separated with measuring tape.
One side is healthier than the other side. Which could it be? (Getty Images) (Julia_Sudnitskaya via Getty Images)

They now believe this is amongst the most comprehensive systems available.

The lowest scoring foods were snacks and sweet desserts, with an average score of just 16.4.

Highest, unsurprisingly, was vegetables (69.1) and fruit (average 73.9, though almost all raw fruits scored 100).

Nuts, seeds and pulses scored 78.6, although starchy vegetables such as potatoes scored just 43.2 on the scale.

For meat, poultry was 42.67, beef just 24.9 and nutritious seafood an impressive 67.

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The scoring was based on nutritional content linked to issues and diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and cancer, and the team also included malnutrition.

Drinks were assessed, with a feeble 27.6 for for sugar-filled soft drinks and energy sodas, and an impressive 67 for pure, unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices.

The scale was developed over three years and reported in the journal Nature Food this month.

"Once you get beyond 'eat your veggies, avoid soda,' the public is pretty confused about how to identify healthier choices in the grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant," said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study's lead author.

Close up of multiethnic young people gather in pizzeria together have fun sharing tasty Italian food, diverse colleagues or friends take pizza slices enjoy dining out in bar, takeaway delivery service
But it looks so healthy and delicious (Getty Images) (fizkes via Getty Images)

"Consumers, policy makers, and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices."

The team worked out the scale by investigating the balance of 'harmful versus healthy' in the foods studied, rather than focussing only on harmful factors as has happened previously.

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They studied and included the latest discoveries on nutrients, ingredients, processing characteristics, phytochemicals and additives and used a single consistent scoring system across all categories of foods.

Previous systems, for instance, would divide a pizza into the different components, whereas the Food Compass looks at the whole meal. Bad news - an average pizza scores just 25, and worse still, a cheeseburger gets a paltry 8.

Raspberries, however, score 100, and vegetable curry an encouraging 90. Low fat frozen yogurt gets 81, but ready-to-eat fat-free pudding scores just 1, making it one of the worst things you can eat for health.

Closeup of woman's hands holding cup with organic frozen yogurt Ice cream served in a takeaway cup, Healthy eating concept.
Low-fat frozen yogurt: Fill your boots. (Getty Images) (toncd32 via Getty Images)

The teams hopes that in future, scoring can evolve based on new information in areas like gut health, immunity, brain, bone and mental health, and even sustainability.

A score of around 70 suggested foods that should be 'encouraged', 31-69 suggests 'moderation' and anything below that is a red flag and requires 'minimal consumption' for good health.

Read more: 3 easy ways to eat heart smart: ‘You don’t have to have a perfect diet’

The new scoring system can help consumers to assess their whole shopping basket or daily diet without the adding up and comparisons of the traffic-light system currently in use in the UK.

"With its publicly available scoring algorithm, Food Compass can provide a nuanced approach to promoting healthy food choices–helping guide consumer behaviour, nutrition policy, scientific research, food industry practices, and socially based investment decisions," said study co-author Renata Micha.

For more information: Tufts University

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