HEALTH & WELLNESS: New Index Takes Different Approach to Nutrition

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HEALTH & WELLNESS: New Index Takes Different Approach to Nutrition

At a time when the food industry is awash in programs aimed at helping shoppers make healthier choices at the shelf, including such well-publicized initiatives as Hannaford’s Guiding Stars, Supervalu’s NutritionIQ, Topco’s NuVal and the just launched – and already controversial – Smart Choices, developed with the input of a coalition of consumer packaged goods companies including Kraft and Kellogg, it would seem that there wouldn’t be room for yet another system. The Nutrient-Rich Foods (NRF) Index, however, is being touted by its developers as an objective, science-based way to measure the total nutritional quality of foods and beverages, enabling consumers to make the best possible food selections for their individual needs.

While the USDA’s scientifically based Healthy Eating Index (HEI) mainly measures the recommended eating pattern from the five food groups, the NRF Index goes a step further by focusing on the nutrient density of individual foods and beverages, therefore enabling people of all ages to choose more nutrient-rich foods first to build healthier diets.

Since much of the current nutrition education focuses on avoiding specific nutrients such as sugar or fat, it hasn’t given Americans the means to build a healthy, complete diet, according to the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition (NRFC), a partnership of scientific researchers, health professionals, communications experts and commodity organizations formed in answer to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee’s call for the creation of a scientifically valid definition of nutrient density to help with nutrition guidance. The group developed the NRF Index to provide a positive, science-based approach to inform people about what to eat rather than what not to eat, and how to choose more nutrient-rich foods. The index balances beneficial nutrients and nutrients to limit to arrive at the true nutritional value of foods, beverages, meals or total daily food intake.

For an objective approach to develop a nutrient density index that could be validated against the HEI, the NRFC evaluated different formulas featuring hundreds of varying numbers and combinations of nutrients. A formula based on 100 calories and taking the sum of the percent daily values of nine nutrients to encourage (protein, calcium, magnesium, iron, fiber, potassium and vitamins A, C and E) minus the sum of percent daily values of three nutrients to limit (saturated fats, sodium and added sugars) led to the greatest correlation with the HEI, and became the NRF Index. Currently ongoing consumer research will determine how people can apply the index to their daily lives.

Adam Drewnowski, co-author of a study in the August 2009 issue of Journal of Nutrition on the development of the index, and director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle, explained that “the climate of fear” surrounding foods at the supermarket must be abandoned, and that the NRF Index, which makes no distinction between “good” and “bad” foods, was the best way to help dispel that fear.

“A healthy diet can include all foods,” notes Drewnowski, who adds that the transparent, scientifically validated index aims help consumers identify nutrient-rich foods as they make nutrition decisions throughout the day.

In addition to positive nutrition messaging, Drewnoski points to the importance of affordable healthy food, since the perception of value drives consumer spending. “You get what you pay for,” he says, noting that the index’s scoring system can be used to calculate nutrients per unit cost.

While the index is already available to participants in the recent study, Drewnoski said that the research findings would be officially launched at a webinar scheduled to take place Oct. 6, and which would be open to researchers and health professionals.

More information is available at