Nutrient-Saturated Foods

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The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are due for an update as the 2005 guidelines near their expiration date. Updated every five years, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans "are the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities." Recently, we discussed some nutrition labeling in grocery stores, how confusing it is, and how the FDA plans to crack down. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines may help guide the FDA towards a more meaningful labeling system. Many nutrition experts believe an addition to the guidelines regarding the nutrient density of foods would be a step in the right direction.

So what is nutrient density?

Nutrient-dense or nutrient-rich foods are those that are packed with nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.) without a lot of calories. For example, fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense. On the other hand, energy-dense foods pack the... energy (a.k.a. calories) without much nutritional benefit. Think junk food, for example. For obvious reasons, in the nutrition world we encourage the former and strongly advise against the latter or at the very least recommend you eat them in moderation. Imagine if an improved set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans was coupled with a more meaningful nutrition labeling system. Well, insert Dr. Adam Drewnoski's work and that might not be far from reality.

Drewnowski, a University of Washington researcher, is among the nutrition experts urging policy makers to include nutrient density in the 2010 guidelines. However, without a valid measurement tool that objectively evaluates the nutrient density of a variety of foods, such urging wouldn't get far. So Drewnowski began work on a nutrient profiling system called the Nutrient-Rich Food Index (NRF). The NRF evaluates foods based on the amount of 9 key nutrients they provide relative to the amount of calories they contain. An index such as the NRF has implications for people of all ages, providing guidance for choosing more nutrient-dense foods in order to build a healthier diet.

Drewnowski then took the NRF a step further using cost analysis data to show which nutrient-dense foods are most affordable in what is called the Affordable Nutrition Index. In his study, Drewnowski analyzed nearly 300 commonly eaten foods for their nutrition content and cost. As expected, the findings include several fruits and vegetables as well as several vegetable soups.

Despite the research being sponsored in part by Campbell's soup company, the findings likely hold some validity. Why? Think about it-many soups are low in calories and loaded with vegetables. Now choose one with low sodium and the one that's on sale and you've got yourself an affordable, inexpensive entree. Add in a glass of milk, a piece of whole grain toast, and warm homemade applesauce and call it dinner. One more added benefit - soups are often available among otherwise predominantly junk found in convenience stores.

It may take a while for this to hit your local grocery store, but it is certainly a step in the right direction in helping consumers determine the most affordable sources of healthful foods. If we can combine healthy choices that are budget-friendly, then it will be much easier to encourage increased intake of the good stuff - fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and founder of She is also the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto