A new labeling system would make avoiding empty calories even easier.

By Clara Olshansky
August 11, 2017
Tetra Images / Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Trying to eat healthier? Well, we know that nebulous concept of "healthy" can be confusing. It's not always clear where to start, and sometimes trying too hard could be the reason you're failing. In fact, it can be so confusing that some people just give up food altogether, all in the name of a cleanse. But according to a recent study published in the Journal of Food Science, there may be another way to eat better that doesn't require you to count calories or cut out all carbs: nutrient density scoring.

According to the study, nutrient density scoring entails "calculating a numeric score for foods based on their nutrient profiles," which basically means creating a number that tells you how much of what you're eating is made of nutrients you need. So a nutrient-dense food would be something like lettuce, while on the other side you have "empty calories" like sodas and sweets.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota looked at the nutrient density of a bunch of different foods—everything from Reese's to tea—and calculated a couple of different nutrient density scores for all of them. Why multiple scores? Currently, there are two different versions of the Nutrient Rich Food Index which can be used to score the nutrient density for 100 calories of each of the foods tested. The study looked at the NRF 9.3, which has a lot to do with the USDA's existing Healthy Eating Index, and the NRF 15.3, which encompasses all the nutrients included in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Each of the scores gave somewhat different values, but they definitely agree on a lot of things. It turns out coffee and tea score higher than anything on nutrient density, but that doesn't help us too much since the average cup of coffee or tea has almost no calories. After that, no surprise, vegetables, especially lettuce, scored super high. As far as some of the worst-for-you options, sodas, cakes, and ready-to-drink sweetened teas (think AriZona or Snapple) scored in the negatives on both measures, which means they include a lot of things you shouldn't be consuming and hardly any things you should be consuming.

So what do we do with this information? The study suggests that it could be helpful for food packages to include some kind of nutrient density score so that customers know which foods are giving them the most nutrition bang for their buck. But until there's a uniform scoring system in place, and consumer awareness of what that score means, we're still stuck with the same old Nutrition Facts.