Answering 'THE' Question About Food

OK, I admit it. There are really two questions about food. Regarding the first -- "Does it taste good?" -- you're on your own. Taste, after all, is a matter of -- well, taste.

Regarding the second -- "Is it good for me?" -- I can help. How a food affects your health is a matter of science.

But until now, despite a great deal of nutrition science, it has been nearly impossible to size up the choices in a typical supermarket and determine if a food is good for you. It has been just as difficult to know if one product is better than another.

The difficulty may at one time have come from a lack of accessible nutrition information. But those days are long gone. What now makes it virtually impossible to determine the relative nutritiousness of foods is an overload of information, some of it arcane, much of it biased and most of it downright misleading. None of it reliably answers the question: "Is this product good for me?"

The FDA-mandated nutrition facts are useful, but they don't answer that question. A given food might be high in fiber, which is good, but also high in sugar, which is not so good. As compared to a product lower in both fiber and sugar -- which is better for you? You can't tell.

What about a food with high amounts of sugar or salt or saturated fat, but fortified with plenty of vitamins and minerals? Is it better or worse for you than a natural food without the added salt or sugar, but also lower in vitamins and minerals? Again, you can't tell.

If a product has a banner ad on the cover saying it contains whole grain, does that mean it's good for you? Not necessarily, because it doesn't say what else the product contains, such as trans fat, or high fructose corn syrup, or copious amounts of salt.

The product may boast about being "reduced salt" or containing "less sugar," but that's just the part of the story the folks selling it want to highlight. More often than not, less sugar means more salt, and vice versa. Less fat generally means more sugar and vice versa, too. A multigrain bread may not contain multiple whole grains. But the picture of waving wheat on the package will sure suggest that.

I have long dreamed about fixing this. What a difference it could make if we could all tell at a glance which products are actually good for us, which are better than others. What a powerful tool for promoting health and preventing disease a food supply "for dummies" would be!

Well, I am delighted to report that the occasional dream comes true. For the past two years, I have been privileged to lead a group of some of North America's top nutrition and public health scientists in developing the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI.

The ONQI is a highly sophisticated scoring system that takes a great deal of nutrition information and distills it all down to a single number. Foods are placed in rank order on the basis of overall nutritional quality.

Deciphering the Nutrition Equation

The ONQI includes everything you would expect -- from nutrients with favorable health effects, such as omega-3 fat, calcium and vitamin D, to nutrients with unfavorable health effects, such as sugar, salt and trans fat.

But it also includes a lot you might not expect, such as measures of the quality of protein and fat, the glycemic load, families of antioxidants, and so on.

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