Volume 80, Number 4 July/August 2009
Concern that many Americans are overweight and undernourished has led to increased interest in developing and implementing a new course for nutrition guidance and education. After three decades of following dietary advice focused on reducing consumption of specific nutrients, it is clear that this approach has failed. A diet built on nutrient-dense (or “nutrient-rich,” a term preferred by consumers) foods can provide a solid foundation for better health. Nutrient density is a long-standing dietary principle and a cornerstone of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s MyPyramid. Although there is no standard definition for a nutrient-dense food, it typically is defined as a food that provides substantial amounts of nutrients for relatively fewer calories.
To help consumers make healthier food and beverage choices, there is widespread support for the Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) approach. This approach is designed to help Americans get more nutrition from their calories and emphasizes foods and beverages such as colorful fruits and vegetables, enriched and whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, and lean meats and beans. The NRF approach has the potential to help consumers choose foods and beverages that are nutrient-rich first, and choose foods and beverages that are less nutrient-rich as calorie needs allow.
Health professionals are concerned that the plethora of “better for you” symbols and icons on food packages and grocery shelves may lead to consumer confusion. Such symbols are based on differing ways of ranking foods according to their nutrient composition, making it difficult to compare with one another. This concern in part underscores the need to develop a scientifically valid definition of nutrient density to identify nutrient-rich foods and beverages. Ideally, this system should be objective, simple, balanced, validated, transparent, and consumer-driven. Ultimately it should improve diet quality and health.
Researchers working with the NRF Coalition – a partnership of leading scientific researchers, health professionals, communications experts, and 12 commodity groups representing MyPyramid’s five basic food groups – have developed a science-based, consumer-driven food guidance system. This approach is based on the NRF Index, which takes into account a food’s content of nine nutrients to encourage and three nutrients to limit relative to energy. To date, this is the only system that meets the criteria to establish a nutrient profile system identified above. In addition, the Coalition has designed a consumer-driven nutrition education tool called My5™ to illustrate that the NRF approach can help people identify nutrient-rich foods and improve diet quality. My5™ provides a comparative score for the nutrient richness of foods and beverages from the basic food groups, as well as meals or a whole day’s intake.
The shift to positive nutrition guidance and education based on a consistently determined standardized nutrient density index/score can help people implement the 2005 Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid in their daily lives. Furthermore, this standardized approach may help form the basis of nutrition policy such as nutrition standards for foods offered in schools.
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