Answering 'THE' Question About Food

A new system offers a better way to size up food, according to its developer.

Nov. 29, 2007 — -- 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.

In addition to a lot of nutrition science, the formula includes a great deal of other public health science. What makes a food more or less nutritious is how it contributes to the quality of the overall diet to influence health. So the ONQI measures contribution to overall diet, and influences on health.

That requires defining the conditions nutrients in foods are associated with, the strength of those associations, the frequency of the associations and the severity of the health conditions in question.

The result is a complex and sophisticated formula that took a team of 15 scientists two years to build. But we've done all the heavy lifting so you don't have to! The ONQI is like the engine of a high-performance car. It would take a highly trained mechanic or engineer to understand the engine of your car in all its parts. But you get in, turn the key, and ... vroom.

A Scorecard for Food

The ONQI is just like that. The scores for the 50,000 or so foods in a typical supermarket will be converted into a 1 to 100 scale, just like a test score. The most nutritious food there is will get a score of 100; the foods with the least nutritional value will score close to 1. Everything else will be in between. You will be able to tell at a glance which bread, breakfast cereal, salad dressing, pasta sauce, cookie, candy bar, etc., is better for you, overall, than another.

And if you routinely choose the better for you options, the impact on your diet and health can be enormous. An optimal diet could help us all reduce diabetes risk by as much as 90 percent, heart disease risk by 80 percent, cancer risk by 30 to 60 percent. You can get there one food choice at a time!

Through a partnership with Topco Associates, the ONQI will be launched in thousands of supermarkets throughout the United States in 2008. We'll be launching on the Internet as well. Online, the ONQI will be adapted to personal dietary preferences, health conditions, and more. You'll be able to find out, if you want to know, why one food scores better than another.

Knowledge is power, but information is not the same as knowledge. There is a befuddling array of misinformation out there now regarding nutrition. The ONQI fixes that, so everyone can discern better nutrition at a glance as well as top nutrition experts.

It's coming soon to a supermarket near you, so you'll be empowered. How you use that power will be up to you.

Dr. David Katz is director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine and medical contributor to ABC News. Visit his Web site at