Major food chains are adopting food scoring systems to help their customers pick nutrient-dense foods, but some seem to be causing more confusion than clarity. Whole Foods just announced the new scoring system they’ve selected nationally, developed by Dr. Joel Furhman, author of best-selling books on healthy eating and the ANDI score (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index), which divides a food’s micro-nutrients by the number of calories it has. Sounds good but in reality here’s the rub: Iceberg lettuce gets an ANDI score of 127 while walnuts only get 30!
Wait a second! The top antioxidant nut, chock full of omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E, gets ¼ the points compared to a type of lettuce known to be devoid of nutrients? Ok, so you can eat as much iceberg lettuce as humanly possible because it hardly has any calories and maybe then its nutrient content would exceed a handful of walnuts? But who eats that much iceberg lettuce without an oil-based salad dressing to make it palatable, which would raise the calorie count dramatically!
Seems like a reality check is due here and I’d like to turn you onto a website that has the best nutrient-density information I’ve found anywhere. I discovered it researching TeeChia’s ingredients and recommend it highly. But first, here are a few tips that make it easy to determine if a food is nutrient dense or not:
- Is it a whole plant food?
If yes, it’s nutrient-dense, period. Does it really help us to know that blueberries have a higher ANDI score than strawberries? Who cares if we love to eat them both? So kale might have a higher ANDI score than red leaf lettuce. But here’s why both leaves are important in your diet: they are both high in minerals, micro-nutrients and antioxidants. No one is going to live on kale alone!
What you really want to pay attention to is color.The way to get a variety of high antioxidant micro-nutrients is to eat a broad variety of colors in your plant foods. Pay special attention to eating the darker colored ones with the purple and blue hues. Color is the key to the quality of antioxidants the food contains. Don’t be fooled by white varieties that have been bred to be colorless. I recently ate white pomegranates and they had no flavor because they were devoid of the amazing nutrients in red pomegranates. Even white chia seeds don’t have the antioxidant level of black chia seeds. So let your meal be a potpourri of different colors – the more intense the better!
- Does it have refined carbohydrates?
If yes, it isn’t nutrient-dense, period. Look for what ingredients are providing the sugars. If they are coming from natural dried fruits, it’s nutrient-dense. If they are coming from sugar cane (including “evaporated cane juice” which is nothing more than sugar), agave syrup, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, and even honey, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup, the nutrient-density goes down as the calories from these sweeteners goes up. None of these sweeteners provide much in the way of nutrients. Don’t get me wrong – I love honey and I think raw honey is a superior natural food with its enzymes and antibacterial properties, but it isn’t nutrient-dense, so it needs to be eaten sparingly to keep your blood sugar balanced.
- Is there added oil in it?
The more oil, the higher the fat content, the lower the nutrient-density. I have nothing against good fats that come from our seeds, nuts, olives and avocados. But oil that has been extracted from its source can be similar to sugars that have been refined. Both can add a lot of calorie that aren’t providing nutrients. On top of that, most food companies have added too much oil to please your fat-craving taste buds.
For example, does hummus really need to be made with added oil? No, sesame tahini, an ingredient that defines hummus along with garbanzo beans, is simply ground sesame seeds and it provides plenty of fat. Oil in hummus just ups the calories and is a cheap way to lower the food content. Check out the percentage of fat calories in your favorite hummus and you’ll see what I mean. I found I was eating a hummus brand I loved, but 90% of its calories were coming from fat! Oil was the 2nd ingredient. Now that I'm avoiding oil in foods I eat, I make my own hummus without any added oil and I can tell you, it is more delicious than any store bought hummus. Hmmm, maybe a new product I should start marketing!
- How has it been processed?
There is no easy answer to this factor because sometimes cooking adds to nutrient-density, but much of the time, it reduces the nutrient content. Here’s a simple way to determine if the processing has added or detracted from the food: does cooking make the nutrients more available? In many cases, foods like grains and beans have to be cooked to make their nutrients bio-available. Take the rolled oats, quinoa and amaranth flakes in TeeChia for instance. These seeds have been steamed before rolling into a flake and this steaming process partially cooks them so that they can be eaten.
On the other hand, look at crispy, crunchy cereals. That crunchiness is coming from over-baking with oil and sugar. For instance, the nutrients from rolled oats in granola have been reduced by prolonged heat during baking. Those flaked cereals are made from a slurry of grains, sugar and oil that is extruded and then baked to a crisp. Of course, I know that that crunchiness is enjoyable to munch. One way to optimize nutrient density in your diet would be to trade out your crunchy sweetened breakfast cereal for a more healthful option like TeeChia, our gluten-free super seed breakfast cereal. If giving up your crunchy breakfast cereal is too difficult to imagine, try adding in a little TeeChia to the mix. And remember that one of the the best ways to increase your nutrition is to scale back on products like overcooked cereal, which get most of their calories from added sugar and fat.
Here’s an easy way to eliminate a food that has been processed too much: Is it fried? Avoid fried foods including chips that are high in calories but low in nutrients. My favorite chip alternative? Mary’s Gone Crackers gluten-free crackers are baked and their seed content gives them a high nutrient-density. You can scoop up hummus or a dip with them just like a chip and they have no added oil! All of their fat content is coming from the ingredients themselves that are 100% unrefined, natural foods.
Check out this website devoted to “The World’s Healthiest Foods”:
George Mateljan is an industry pioneer in natural foods and founder of a company called Health Valley that once ruled natural food shelves throughout the ‘80s-‘90s with numerous natural food products. George sold Health Valley after 25 years in the mid 1990’s and now devotes himself to his non-profit foundation, The George Mateljan Foundation For The World’s Healthiest Foods.
The World’s Healthiest Foods website is chock full of information on the nutrient content of our best plant foods. Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, ND, one of the country’s foremost authorities on science-based natural medicine, is a contributor to this website’s comprehensive pages on nutrients in foods. Get ready for an intensive but fascinating read on many of the top plant foods we love to eat. Additionally, you’ll find recipes for each food alongside the nutritional analysis. George Mateljan began his career as a chef so he cares about food quality and educating people on delicious ways to prepare nutrient-dense meals.
George and Joseph have developed a rating system for specific nutrients in foods so you can discover the foods with the most plentiful amounts of any particular nutrient that you may want to increase in your diet. This makes more sense to me than the ANDI scoring system. For instance, now I know that almonds are a “very good source” of Vitamin E and a “good source” of magnesium. Look for a food’s rating chart at the bottom of each page.
You may not know this, but the FDA will not allow a food company to publish any science on foods that shows that eating them may combat diseases like cancer or heart disease. On top of that, the FDA doesn’t recognize any antioxidants other than Vitamins A, C and E, because there is no established “recommended daily intake” or RDI for them. So a product like TeeChia that has many phytonutrients with antioxidant properties can’t use the word “antioxidant” on its packaging. We also can’t talk about the heart protective nutrients that lower cholesterol in TeeChia. Well, we try to hint at it so if you see the word “phytonutrient”, you’ll know what we’re talking about!
Even the conventional food companies have been threatened by the FDA when they published anything on their website about the healthy ingredients in their foods. Blue Diamond had to take down pages on their website just for talking about the nutrients in almonds!
So, the place to go to get the scoop on the nutrients in your favorite plant foods as well as a few cheeses, eggs and fish, is whfoods.org. It’s a bit of a confusing website, so here’s my recommended page that lists all the foods they cover with more being added all the time: http://www.whfoods.com/foodstoc.php. This is education about food at its best, so take the time for an enjoyable read!