Science Informs Understanding of Nutrient Density

Food scientists have an important role to play in measuring the nutrient density of foods, making nutrient recommendations, and communicating about nutrient density to governments, policy makers, food companies, and consumers.

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By Nancy Mann Jackson

Our foods are more than combinations of various nutrients—but all people need certain nutrients to live healthy lives. And food scientists have an important role to play in measuring the nutrient density of foods, making nutrient recommendations, and communicating about nutrient density to governments, policy makers, food companies, and consumers.

In IFT20 session 221—Nutrient Dense Foods: Policy, Public Health Implications, and Food Innovations, Adam Drewnowski, University of Washington, covers the definitions of nutrient density and various ways to measure nutrient density. He also discusses how nutrient density affects differences in diet quality and cost.

For example, nutrient profiling models have been used for quite some time to give each food a single score. Those scores have been used by regulatory agencies and educational institutions as the basis for developing nutrition or health claims, front-of-pack symbols or logos, and in regulating marketing and advertising to children. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has made use of nutrient profiling by advising consumers to eat nutrient-rich foods in lieu of empty calories.

“Interestingly, nutrient profiling has become the scientific basis for product reformulation by the food industry,” explains Drewnowski. “It actually drives innovation and reformulation.”

When indexed by product sales, nutrient profiling methods turn into a nutrition barometer, which can tell you whether reformulation of a product by the industry is having an effect on the consumer in terms of consumption and health outcomes.

In general, the science of nutrition is based on delivering nutrients, says Joanne Slavin, University of Minnesota. The field of nutrition is moving toward making recommendations of whole foods rather than nutrients, which makes the recommendations easier for consumers to understand. The recommended whole foods can provide nutrients, and they can also be enriched or fortified to increase nutrient density.

But as the trend moves toward more whole food–based recommendations, Slavin says the industry must pay attention to making nutrient-dense, affordable food readily available. “Nutrient science and policy should flow from high-quality science,” she says.


Learn how food formulation is directly impacted by nutrient density measurements by watching the entire session in the SHIFT20 on-demand library, which includes a presentation by Jie Sun, General Mills.

Registration for SHIFT20 provides access to the on-demand library of sessions for a full year.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Ala.

SHIFT20 Health & Nutrition content is supported by the generous sponsorship of AAK.

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