Choosing the healthiest foods from the thousands of items available at your local supermarket can be one of the most challenging aspects of learning to eat well with diabetes. Consider the fact that a medium-size U.S. grocery store sells 45,000 different items and
carries over 100 varieties of cereal alone! The prospect of comparing the ingredients and nutrition information of even a fraction of those brightly colored boxes of flakes, puffs, and “Os” is enough to make even shoppers with good intentions decide to just grab the first box they see.
Fortunately, help in identifying the best products available on store shelves may already be at a supermarket near you. Food scoring (also called food rating or nutrition profiling) is a type of product and shelf-labeling system that enables consumers to judge, at a glance, the relative healthfulness of every food in the store. Food scores promise to make shopping for healthy foods easier; however, be aware that they may also drastically alter your shopping habits — for the better!
Food scoring systems have been around for a long time, but they’ve mostly been used by scientists researching the connections between diet, health, and disease. Most of these food scoring systems use formulas that compare the amounts of beneficial nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber) to less beneficial nutrients (such as saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar) in foods. Essentially, foods containing favorable amounts of beneficial nutrients receive the highest scores.
Some formulas also consider the number of calories a food contains. Foods that provide high levels of nutrients per calorie are generally considered healthier and rate more highly than those that contain fewer nutrients per calorie. For example, strawberries provide high levels of vitamins and fiber and a low number of calories per serving. One serving of strawberries (1 ¼ cups) contains approximately 65 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber, and nearly twice the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vitamin C. A serving of strawberry jam (1 tablespoon), on the other hand, contains about the same amount of calories (55) and carbohydrate but only trace amounts of fiber and vitamin C. In fact, you would have to consume 68 tablespoons of jam to get the amount of vitamin C in 1 ¼ cups of fresh berries. In a food scoring system, therefore, strawberries would rate highly and be considered a nutrient-dense food beneficial to health. Strawberry jam would receive a lower rating, indicating that it should be eaten sparingly due to its high caloric and relatively low nutrient content.
Selecting fresh fruit over jam is an easy decision to make when you are shopping for the most nutritious, lowest-calorie foods at the supermarket. However, choosing the healthiest products from among the large variety of cereals, soups, frozen meals, and other types of foods can be a lot more challenging. The Nutrition Facts panels and lists of ingredients on product labels certainly provide helpful information for making comparisons. You can easily compare, for example, the calorie, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber content of different foods and decide to buy one product over another based on your particular needs and dietary goals. However, many people find glancing back and forth between different labels cumbersome and confusing. After all, some products that are low in fat may also be high in sodium or carbohydrate, or a food that is sugar-free may actually contain more calories than the same product sweetened with sugar. In cases like these, it’s difficult if not impossible to decide which product is the healthiest.