Eat Healthier With the Help of a New Food Scoring System

Food Compass, a research-driven guide by Friedman School scientists, grades ingredients—and entire meals—to steer you to better nutrition.

Nutrition advice can be confusing to navigate. But aspiring healthy eaters have a new, science-based independent guide to help them through the maze of information: Food Compass.

“Once you get beyond ‘eat your veggies, avoid soda,’ the public is pretty confused about how to identify healthier choices in the grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, who was part of the team of researchers who created Food Compass. “Consumers, policymakers, and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices.”

Unlike other systems, which focus mostly on harmful factors like salt and sugar, Food Compass also considers the health-promoting qualities of what we eat. And while other systems zero in on just a few nutrients and ingredients, Food Compass looks at a wide range, and draws on cutting-edge research to grade foods across nine categories, including the types and amounts of nutrients they contain, how much they’ve been processed, whether they contain additives such as food colorings and preservatives, and whether their ingredients are linked to adverse health conditions.

These individual scores are combined in a final grade. If a food scores between 70 and 100 (as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds generally do), it’s a great addition to your diet. If it falls in the 31–69 range (like most cuts of chicken and most sandwiches), you should eat it in moderation. Anything below that, which includes many desserts and processed snacks, you should try to limit. 

The scoring system can also continue to evolve as nutrition research advances. And it’s important to remember that no single food, by itself, makes for a good diet. But Food Compass can point you toward a healthier overall eating pattern.

Check out where the needle lands when it comes to these common foods, whose scores have been interpreted with the help of Friedman School doctoral candidate Meghan O’Hearn, a member of the team that created Food Compass.

Spinach, 100

Rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and compounds linked with health and wellness, spinach and most raw fruits and vegetables get a perfect score. Cooked veggies are often on par—chana saag, a minimally processed Indian dish of spinach, tomatoes, chickpeas, and spices, scores a 100.

Olive oil, 81

A healthier choice than animal fats such as butter (6) or lard (16) and also refined carbs like white bread (6), this staple of the Mediterranean diet has a great ratio of unsaturated (good) to saturated (bad), contains bioactive phenolics, and is correlated in many studies with positive health outcomes. Other plant oils from nuts, fruits, and seeds, like canola, soybean, and sunflower oil, also get high scores.

Baked salmon, 93

Pondering a pescatarian future? Fish is one of the healthiest animal foods out there. Rich in minerals such as potassium and vitamin B12, salmon is also high in seafood omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Either baked or broiled with oil, it scores toward the top of the recommended food range. To compare it with other animal-source foods, grilled skinless chicken breast should be eaten in moderation (57), while braised pork tenderloin (32) is right on the edge of foods to minimize, related to its higher saturated fat.

Whole wheat bread, 60

Swapping whole wheat bread for white bread into that sandwich can make a difference. Studies have shown that moderate consumption of fiber-rich whole grains protects against a number of diseases. By contrast, white bread (6), although often fortified with B vitamins, lacks fiber and is almost totally made of refined grains, which research has linked with diseases such as diabetes and cancer when eaten regularly.

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Potato chips, 52

Slow down on this salty snack. Although fine in moderation, and not quite as bad as restaurant french fries (41), potato chips are highly processed and contain a lot of starch and sodium. For a healthier option, try sweet potato chips (68), whose higher fiber and micronutrient content boosts their score to just short of the recommended foods cutoff.

Egg, boiled or poached, 48

Are eggs a superfood, or a heart attack waiting to happen?  The science suggests they are right in between. Although eggs are high in protein and several micronutrients, most studies have shown them to be generally neutral for risk of major diseases, while others conclude they may increase risk in certain groups, like patients with diabetes. Food Compass deems them a healthier breakfast choice than an ultra-processed cereal like cornflakes (16), but not as good as plain instant oatmeal (75), with whole grains and fiber proven boost to heart health.

Frozen yogurt made with whole milk, 23

This tasty dessert, often touted as a guilt-free alternative to ice cream (11), does indeed score a bit better—in part because yogurt is fermented, which research has shown to have protective health effects. And some nonfat frozen yogurts can make it into the recommended range (77, chocolate flavor). But overall, frozen yogurt is often high in sugar and low in fiber, and lacks protective unsaturated fats. And some versions contain relatively little real yogurt, making it a food to avoid.

Restaurant cheeseburger with condiments, 13

Why are cheeseburgers so bad for you? It comes down mostly to the red meat of the burger patty and the refined grains of the bun, which again are both linked with poor health. Cheeseburgers are also often ultra-processed and have a poor ratio of healthy to unhealthy fats (both the meat and the cheese)—and to top it all off, covered in condiments such as ketchup and relish packed with added sugar.

Instant noodle soup, 1

Sorry, instant ramen fans—instant noodles are one of the lowest-scoring choices, right down there with flavored ice pops (1) and pure sugar (1). They’re basically nothing but refined grains and sodium, ultra-processed with tons of additives, with barely any fiber or micronutrients to redeem them.

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