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Food Scoring for Better Nutrition

by Rita Carey, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

A few food ratings have already been posted at www.nuval.com, and so far, there have been no surprises: mustard greens and strawberries have a score of 100, salmon gets an 82, and regular soda receives a 1. Foods you expect to rate well, such as fruits, fish, and vegetables, likely will have a high score, while foods that are obviously not highly nutritious, like sodas and sweets, won’t. David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Yale Griffin Prevention Research Center and lead scientist in the development of ONQI, explains that ONQI ratings will be especially helpful when making product comparisons within a category of foods, such as cereals, for instance. After all, the nutritional quality of cereal products varies widely, and the differences are not always obvious to the consumer. ONQI ratings will make those differences clearer.

The creators of ONQI hope that their system, which gives the most nutrient-dense foods the highest scores, will help to make all Americans healthier. Most Americans are, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005, both over- and undernourished. They are over-nourished when it comes to calories, but undernourished when it comes to many essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and other substances that promote health and prevent disease. People whose diets lack these important nutrients may be more susceptible to diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes.

In an attempt to address this problem, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 recommends getting most of a day’s calories from nutrient-dense foods and only a small amount from added fats, sugars, or alcohol. The Guidelines call these “discretionary calories” and suggest a discretionary calorie allowance based on the total number of calories consumed per day. (To see a list of suggested amounts, see “Discretionary Calorie Allowances”.) The ONQI food scoring system was developed to specifically address these recommendations in a user-friendly fashion. By simply glancing at a food’s rating, shoppers can locate nutrient-dense foods and, ONQI’s developers hope, eat more of them and less of low-rated foods.

The ONQI rating system may benefit people with diabetes in a number of ways. Because the formula includes glycemic load, foods that are likely to have a smaller effect on blood glucose levels will rate more highly. Fat content and type of fat are also considered in the ONQI formula, so shoppers should be better able to identify foods with the healthiest types of fat, thereby reducing their risk of heart disease. Perhaps most notably, the ONQI rating system will favor those foods that contain the highest concentrations of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial nutrients, many of which can have a positive effect on blood glucose control and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. A diet that’s high in magnesium, for example, has been associated with improved insulin sensitivity in people with Type 2 diabetes and reduced blood pressure in the general population. Good food sources of magnesium, such as whole grains, beans, and green vegetables, will tend to rate highly in the ONQI system. Choosing foods with higher ONQI scores may, therefore, increase your intake of magnesium as well as other beneficial nutrients whose levels are not usually listed in the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels.

Using the ONQI system

You may be wondering whether you will still need to check the Nutrition Facts panel for carbohydrate, sodium, or fiber content of products once the new rating system is put into place, or whether it will be enough to simply choose foods with high numbers. The answer is that it will still be useful and, at times, necessary to note the specific carbohydrate, sodium, or other nutrient content in a food. A product’s food score will not tell you the exact number of grams of carbohydrate per serving, so people with diabetes who count carbohydrates will still need to get that information from the Nutrition Facts panel.

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Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.



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