Nutritional Quality

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Plant breeders often select for and use genes that both increase nutrient content and intensify the color of fruits and vegetables. Photo: USDA

Introduction to Nutritional Quality

How can a person tell if a serving of one food is more nutritious than a serving of a different food? What about the overall nutritional quality of food choices made during any given day – how does a person know if all their nutritional needs have been met?

There are many reasons why consumers, farmers, and the food industry need information about the nutritional quality of food. Two examples —

  1. A doctor informs a patient that he/she is on a path to Type 2 diabetes and that lifestyle and dietary changes are needed to avoid the disease. How can the person identify dietary components contributing to the progression of the disease that need to be avoided, as well as foods that should be added to daily diets to promote a return to normal blood sugar management?
  2. A food company is looking for ways to increase the nutritional quality of their manufactured foods. How can they sort through the multiple impacts on nutritional quality from changes in recipes and cooking methods?

The best way to answer such questions is to seek insights from applications of a “Nutrient Profiling System” (NPS). Such systems quantify the “nutritional contribution”, and hence “nutritional quality,” of different foods.

By “nutritional contribution,” we mean the portion of a person’s daily nutrient needs that are satisfied by a serving, or a known quantity, of a given food.

The USDA maintains measures of recommended daily intakes.

By “nutritional quality,” we mean the capacity of the nutrients in a given food to promote human health by assuring that: (a) basic physiological and metabolic needs are met, and (b) nutrient deficiencies do not trigger or accelerate the progression of disease, or the aging process.

There are over two-dozen essential nutrients that people must get via food, or suffer dire consequences. Scientists have established Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), or comparable intake levels, for all or most of these nutrients. These levels play an integral role in nutrient profiling systems.

Such systems calculate the percent of a person’s daily need for essential nutrients that are supplied by a known quantity of a given food. The score for a serving, or 100 grams of any given food,

is the sum of the percentage of each RDA provided by the food, across all nutrients within the nutrient-profiling system. The higher the score, the more nutritious a given food is.

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