Nutrient Profiling Systems—More Harmful Than Helpful?

woman in grocery store

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Key Takeaways

  • Food Compass, a nutrient profiling system created by researchers at Tufts University, ranks foods and beverages on a score from 1 to 100. The higher the score, the more healthful the food or beverage.
  • Foods and beverages with a score of 70 or higher should be "encouraged," according to researchers, while those ranked between 31 and 69 should be consumed in "moderation," and those ranked lower than 30 should be "minimized."
  • Dietitians have mixed feelings about this profiling system and are concerned that it could inadvertently lead to disordered or restrictive eating.

There is a new health assessment tool on the block—or should we say, in the grocery aisle—that aims to help consumers navigate food choices. And while a ranking system that makes sense of what to eat and drink and how frequently sounds promising, experts warn of the potential pitfalls in putting too much stock in numerical evaluations.

Aiming to increase nutrient intake is a worthwhile endeavor, but developing a nutritious eating plan is not as simple as avoiding foods with a low score and eating more of those which rank higher, dietitians say.

Given all the labeling (nutrition facts panels, marketing claims, "free-from" claims) that are already on our foods, stopping to make sure our food choices match up with a ranking system can perhaps be a source of more confusion—or worse, a trigger for disordered eating they say.

"As a dietitian who practices using an intuitive eating approach to nutrition, I tend to focus more on behaviors and relationships surrounding food, rather than numbers (calories, macros, etc)," says Stephanie Dorfman, MS, RDN. "Various types of nutrition labeling systems, although very informative for consumers, tend to promote the idea that there are 'good' foods and 'bad' foods, leading to disordered or restrictive eating behaviors."

About Food Compass

Food Compass is the most recent food scoring system to date, but if the concept sounds familiar, that is because you have probably seen other, similar indicators at the grocery store. Guiding Stars, for example, is a star-based ranking system that assigns either one, two, or three stars to foods, ranking them accordingly as good, better, or best.

The system aims to help increase consumption of vitamins, minerals, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids while minimizing consumption of saturated and trans fats; and added sugar, sodium, and artificial colors. The now-defunct NuVal system, more similar to Food Compass assigned rankings on a 1-100 scale based on nutrient density.

The Food Compass system ranks most raw fruits and vegetables with a near-perfect score, while fruits and vegetables that are either canned or prepared with fat get points taken off. While the system ranks for many factors, it seems to miss some of the nuances of nutrition in the real world.

Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN

In general, I am not a huge fan of food scoring systems because it implies 'good' and 'bad' foods.

— Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN

Some products such as canned tomatoes can be more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. Other items might actually benefit from the addition of fats in aiding the absorption of their vitamin content, such as canned pumpkin.

"In general, I am not a huge fan of food scoring systems because it implies 'good' and 'bad' foods," says Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN a registered dietitian and chef with Culinary Nutrition Studio. "This, in turn, may increase guilt or shame around eating and disordered eating behaviors. It may also increase orthorexia or misinformation around foods that are healthy instead of nutrition education."

For example, brown rice may be considered "healthy," Gellman explains but portion size also must be considered. Overeating brown rice can move it from healthy to overindulging depending on the situation, she says.

Stephanie Dorfman, MS, RDN

Making peace with all foods is an important step toward intuitive eating, and any system that labels food as good for you, or bad for you, can prevent you from rejecting the diet mentality.

— Stephanie Dorfman, MS, RDN

Increasing nutrient density is not dependent solely on a numerical system, and an overall mindful relationship with food does not assign morality to what you consume. Embracing an "all foods fit " mentality may trump any labeling system, dietitians say.

That said, one advantage of food scoring systems is the educational component. Understanding what nutrients your food contains can help when it comes to planning your snacks and meals, but so is the importance of recognizing that all foods can be part of your eating plan.

"I do appreciate how the Food Compass incorporates all aspects of the food item into its scoring system—vitamins, minerals, ingredients, additives—which can be a great learning tool for consumers but should not be the end-all, be-all, for their food choices," says Dorfman. "Making peace with all foods is an important step toward intuitive eating, and any system that labels food as good for you, or bad for you, can prevent you from rejecting the diet mentality and healing your relationship with food."

What This Means For You

Food scoring systems can potentially help guide food choices but should be taken with a grain of salt. Nutrition is nuanced and having an overall mindful relationship with food should not be dependent on numbers. If you want assistance developing an eating plan with nutrient-rich food, talk to a registered dietitian for advice.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mozaffarian D, El-Abbadi NH, O’Hearn M, et al. Food Compass is a nutrient profiling system using expanded characteristics for assessing healthfulness of foodsNat Food. 2021;2(10):809-818. doi:10.1038/s43016-021-00381-y

  2. The Tufts Food Campus. The comparison of foods by food compass score within categories.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Are fresh vegetables healthier than frozen or canned?

  4. University of Michigan Health. Vitamins: Their functions and sources.

By Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT
Nicole Rodriguez, registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, resides in the metro New York area, where she offers nutrition counseling and fitness coaching to a diverse clientele. A consultant to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association and New York Beef Council, she’s on the eternal quest for the best burger. Nicole proudly serves on the Bayer L.E.A.D. (leaders engaged in advancing dialogue) network, and as a partner in kind with the Produce For Better Health Foundation. Eager to inspire the next generation of bold, active, and compassionate entrepreneurs, Nicole serves as leader of her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. In her spare time, you’ll find her browsing the grocery store aisles and working on her deadlift technique.