Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

New System Could Help Us Compare Apples and Oranges

By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Given a choice between a Pop-Tart and a pear, we all know which is the more nutritious, right? (Hint: It begins with p!)

But what if the choice is between a pear and a grapefruit?

Or between a fresh pear and a can of pear halves?

If you are like me, you would put the pear ahead of both the Pop-Tart and the canned pears, but you might be at a loss when comparing it with a grapefruit. Now along comes a group developing a food-scoring system that would quantify the nutritional differences between those fresh fruits and -- surprise! -- perhaps even place canned pears on par with, or even higher than, fresh pears.

The goal of the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition is to create a simple coding system to steer us toward foods that pack the greatest nutritive punch for the number of calories they contain and -- important -- the number of dollars they cost. The group's lead scientist, Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington, says it aims to make the system "simple, transparent and user-friendly."

The coalition is building on decades of attempts to guide consumers. In 1938, for instance, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act required that every processed, packaged food feature the name of the food, its net weight, and the name and address of its manufacturer or distributor.

In 1973, the U.S Food and Drug Administration issued regulations requiring nutrition labeling on foods containing added nutrients and those for which the manufacturer made claims about nutritional value or benefits. And in the 1990s, the FDA introduced mandatory nutrition labeling for most foods (the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts panels) standardizing serving sizes and setting uniform language for health claims.

And yet here we are, about 15 years later, and many of us still don't know how to find out what is best to eat. That raises the question: Are we perhaps stymied by having too much information?

Nutrition expert Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of "What to Eat" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16), thinks we may be. "The public is bewildered," she says. "There's a tremendous amount of evidence showing that people say they're confused by the multiple messages. There are ridiculous food products with health claims all over their packages."

In addition to the federal government's attempt to give scientific recommendations, we're exposed to new fads and diets every time we turn around. Eggs go in and out of favor, depending on whether we want their protein or shun their dietary cholesterol. High-fat avocados were bad for us until they were deemed good for us because they contain cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fats.

And when it comes to packaged foods, the Nutrition Facts panels aren't always very enlightening. Have a look at that box of Pop-Tarts, for instance: The panel for Barbie Pop-Tarts Sparkleberry with wild berry filling shows that a single tart, while containing lots of calories (200), has no trans fats and delivers 10 percent each of our daily values of vitamins A and B6 along with iron, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and folic acid. That doesn't sound half-bad. But how can a Pop-Tart be good for you?

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in 2005 (and due to be updated in 2010), and the accompanying food pyramid, a graphic tool meant to help people interpret the guidelines, attempt to help consumers cut through the confusion, in large part by embracing the notion of "nutrient density" as a guiding principle. In simple terms, nutrient density is a measure of the amount of nutrients per calorie in a given food.

The Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition, which includes scientists, communications experts and representatives of 12 agricultural-commodity food organizations, including the National Dairy Council, the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, the Wheat Foods Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, is one of several groups trying to find a way to make nutrient density information accessible to you and me as we plan meals and buy groceries for our families, considering not only nutrients per calorie but also nutrients per penny spent. The coalition hopes to help people focus on embracing foods that contain lots of nutrients rather than thinking in terms of excluding foods that contain less-wholesome ingredients such as trans fats, sodium and added sugars.

And they want to achieve all this within the framework of the dietary guidelines and food pyramid: Their basic advice is to get most of your day's calories first from nutrient-rich foods (the whole grains and fresh vegetables that form the base of the food pyramid) and to fill in any remaining calories with foods chosen from the less-nutrient-rich categories at the pyramid's tip. The idea, Drewnowski explains, is to help consumers figure out how to put the pyramid to use in their daily lives, a task he says many people find tricky.

I like the coalition's positive emphasis on choosing foods for the nutrients they do contain rather than for what they don't, and I agree with Drewnowski when he says the ongoing focus on "avoidance, red lights and alarms" has led many to believe that, for instance, a food that claims to be trans-fat-free "must be a great food," even if that's its only nutritional claim to fame.

Drewnowski says he hopes the coalition will provide guidance for people as they work their way through supermarket aisles. (The coalition's Web site,, offers a supermarket map to lead you to the nutrient-dense foods.)

Here's a hint worth remembering: Typically, foods with the highest nutritional value are found around the perimeter of the grocery store: the produce section, the meat and seafood cases, the dairy shelves. Shop there, and you're almost guaranteed to be making good choices.

Watch this space for more food-labeling news, and check today's Checkup blog for information about recent efforts to require restaurants to provide nutritional information about the foods they serve.Sign upfor our weekly Lean & Fit newsletter by going tohttp://www.washingtonpost.comand searching for "newsletters."

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