Health Watch
by Peggy Biltz and Lori Hoolihan
Nutrient Density: A New Tool in Making Healthful Choices
With rates of obesity and overweight in the United States at an all-time high, consumers are looking for ways to make every calorie count. Nutrient density — the ratio of nutrients in foods to the calories provided — is a concept recently introduced as a tool to help consumers get the most nutrition from their calories. Healthful foods, such as lowfat dairy, typically have higher nutrient density scores because they have lower fat and sugar content.
Nutrient density has been receiving considerable visibility through federal guidelines and recommendations aimed at helping consumers make healthful dietary choices.
The recently revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommend nutrient-dense foods as alternatives to less healthful choices, and emphasize the benefits of eating more low-fat dairy foods, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
Food intake patterns for MyPyramid — the USDA’s recently revised food guidance system — are based on foods in their most nutrient-dense form, i.e. those with little or no solid fats or added sugars.
The Naturally Nutrient Rich Coalition, comprising commodity groups representing the different food groups, has worked to increase the visibility of the concept of nutrient density in various public policy and education arenas. The Coalition supports the development of a standardized index that could be used to identify such foods.
The Food and Drug Administration is investigating ways to incorporate a nutrient density approach into nutrient content and health claims on food labels. This would place emphasis on the package of nutrients in a food in relation to its caloric content, rather than to serving size as it currently does.
For the dairy industry, nutrient density is a positive concept. Using a nutrient density approach shifts the emphasis away from “problematic” nutrients such as fat and cholesterol, onto the presence of a variety of beneficial nutrients important for optimal health. The plethora of healthful nutrients in dairy foods and the wide range of dairy food choices mean that dairy has a lot to gain from such an approach.
Lowfat dairy products in particular, which provide high levels of multiple nutrients for minimal calories, score high on nutrient density measures. For example, nonfat and lowfat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese — which provide high levels of protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, phosphorus and magnesium — are obvious good choices using such a system.
Higher-fat dairy products such as cheese, reduced-fat milk and yogurt still fare well because the nutrients they provide balance out the higher calories. When a nutrient-dense scoring system is used in choosing desserts, even ice cream comes out ahead of many alternatives.
As research on nutrient density advances and the concept of using this tool in making healthier food choices becomes more mainstream, the dairy industry is well positioned. Processors can benefit from the high nutrient density of dairy products by ensuring consumers, through food labeling and marketing materials, are aware if products boast a high nutrient density and they are getting the most “bang for their buck” from those calories.
Peggy Biltz is chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California. Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., is the council’s nutrition research specialist.