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Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score

Drewnowski, A., 2005.  Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score. Am J Clin Nutr.82:721-32.

The American diet is said to be increasingly energy-rich but nutrient poor. To help improve the nutrient-to-energy ratio, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that consumers replace some foods in their diets with more nutrient-dense options. Such dietary guidance presupposes the existence of a nutrient density standard. However, a review of the literature shows that the concept of a nutritious food is not based on any consistent standards or criteria. In many cases, healthful foods are defined by the absence of problematic ingredients—fat, sugar, and sodium—rather than by the presence of any beneficial nutrients they might contain. Past attempts to quantify the nutrient density of foods have been based on a variety of calories-to-nutrient scores, nutrients-per-calorie indexes, and nutrient-to-nutrient ratios. The naturally nutrient rich (NNR) score, which is based on mean percentage daily values (DVs) for 14 nutrients in 2000 kcal food, can be used to assign nutrient density values to foods within and across food groups. Use of the NNR score allows consumers to identify and select nutrient-dense foods while permitting some flexibility where the discretionary calories are concerned. This approach has implications for food labeling, nutritional policy making, and consumer education. The Food and Drug Administration has considered approving nutrient claims based on the ratio of a beneficial nutrient to the food’s energy content, as opposed to a specified minimum amount of a nutrient per serving size. Given the current dietary trends, the nutrient density approach can be a valuable tool for nutrition education and dietary guidance.