Americans overwhelmed by a glut of nutritional suggestions may have hope. The food industry is searching for a new way to standardize such information. The University of Washington's Adam Drewnowski has created his own 100-point system for rating food, which may find its way to your grocery shelves soon.
Good Answer Remix
Artist: Nick Zammuto
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam Drewnowski is one of those nutritional experts who’s devised some of those food rating systems Michael Pollan just referred to. He hopes his 100-point system will make its way to supermarkets and that every price tag will include a number representing the food’s ratings, or nutrient profile. Similar systems are already used in Europe, where future regulations will prevent low scoring foods from making positive health claims on the package. American nutritionists have created competing systems. Some, for instance, use letter grades, and large grocery chains have expressed interest in adding one system or another to their shelves sometime soon. When we spoke to Drewnowski last year, he agreed that shoppers confront a barrage of health claims that are nearly impossible to weigh against one another.
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: The point of nutrient profiling is that we do the math for you on a 100-point scale, and they're based on the best science available. I like the 100-point scale better than grades because grades imply judgment, and a 100-point scale is like temperature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't know. [LAUGHS] As a recipient of many number grades in my life -
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - I still think that they imply judgment. And also, when you talk about you use the best science available, how good is the best science? The conclusions keep changing year by year, decade by decade.
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: Guilty as charged. I think nutritional science has been changing its mind, and I think that has led to consumer confusion. And that is why the score is based on not what you have been calling the “nutrient du jour” but rather on the combination of various nutrients. Let's think in terms of the vitamin B-12, the zinc, the magnesium, the potassium, the vitamin C, the vitamin A.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is what Michael Pollan would call nutritionism, breaking things down into their component parts, when that’s not how we enjoy food and that’s not how our body actually uses them.
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: Well, I'm not saying that we should be looking at those nutrients separately. I'm saying that we should be looking at all those nutrients together. I agree that previously we were looking at foods in terms of the single nutrient, for example, blueberries, high in antioxidants, oysters, high in zinc. How about doing a composite goodness score which takes all of those things into account? But let me mention I think it has to be personalized for you. I'm looking forward to see a scanner which you scan across the barcode and it reads a specific read-out of the healthfulness of a given product for you and you alone. And technology allows us to do that, and this could happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in the meantime, what we'll end up with is a nutrient score that varies probably from grocery store to grocery store, alongside a lot of dubious health claims. Isn't scoring like this only going to add to the confusion?
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: No, I don't think so. It'll simplify things a great deal. You know, people go and they say, I want to buy cookies or I want to buy cereal. Which of the cereals on the shelf has got the best nutritional value, and can I tell this at a glance? I think the intent was never to compare, you know, I was going to say apples and oranges —
[BROOKE LAUGHS] — but, you know, you can compare apples and oranges because, in fact, they are within the same food category. We're not comparing apples and chickens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Much earlier in this discussion you made reference to nutrients du jour. How do these things -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - become du jour?
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: On the negative side, when it comes to, say, trans-fatty acids, there is usually a study in nutritional epidemiology which looks for a statistical correlation between consumption of the given nutrient and health outcomes. This, of course, can be problematic because nutrients are not consumed in a vacuum. Certain people have got certain dietary patterns. Maybe the consumption of that nutrient is linked to the health event but maybe it’s poverty and living in the Bronx. You tell me. Those studies never really make it clear. On the other hand, they are picked up by the media, and this is the devastation du jour, what I call the problem of the day. Years later, this becomes part of the conventional wisdom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when we get to the good nutrient du jour, how do we become obsessed with them, and then what does, you know, does the science follow the reporting or does the reporting follow the science?
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: In many of those cases, I think the research has been commissioned, bought and paid for – for example, the launch of pomegranates as an antioxidant. I'm not saying, of course, that the research was not reliable. I'm merely saying that there are ways of directing attention to a specific nutrient. But I think what’s interesting here is this pendulum swinging between sugar and fat and back again. There was clearly no research that directed the media. In fact, I think the media led the research. To my mind, the transition came precisely in February of 1995, when The New York Times published a front page piece by Molly O’Neill, saying that pasta can make you fat. And until that point, it was generally recognized that pasta couldn't make you fat because pasta was consumed by athletes preparing for a marathon.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And right now, good fats are good for you and what makes you obese is sugar. So I'm thinking that the pendulum will be swinging back one more time to us blaming fat for human obesity. And I've already seen the first example of that. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently came out in favor of high fructose corn syrup, saying there was not much wrong with it. And ten years from now, sugar will be good and fat will be bad again. Mark my words.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
ADAM DREWNOWSKI: You’re very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam Drewnowski is the director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington. We spoke to him in January, 2008.