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The nutrient density of snacks

The Nutrient-Density of Snacks

Dietary Guidelines and practitioners could use nutrient profiling to recommend specific snacks, like yogurt, based on their quantified nutrient density. Instead of being an eating occasion for nutrient-poor foods, snacking could become an eating occasion that contributes positively to the nutrient-density of the American diet.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans made no population-wide recommendations regarding snacks due to inadequate evidence about their healthfulness. However, many common snacks are high in saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. An accurate measure of the nutrient density of snacks would be useful not only for consumers but also for researchers assessing the impact of snacks on overall dietary patterns.

A predictive score of nutrient density

The Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) Index 10.3 was used to compare popular snack foods by their overall nutrient profiles. The NRF algorithm generates a single score for the nutrition quality of individual foods based on their amounts of nutrients to encourage (protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and fiber) and nutrients to limit (saturated fat, sodium, and total sugar) per 100 kilocalories. High NRF scores indicate more nutritious foods. NRF scores were calculated for the top three selling products (based on 2014 market research data) in different snack categories. These NRF scores were averaged to provide an overall nutrient-density score for each category of snack food.

A new definition for snacking?

While some popular snack food categories, including cookies, chips, ice cream, and soft drinks had average NRF scores as low as -17, other top snack categories such as fruit, milk, and yogurt had overall high NRF scores up to 60. NRF scores for individual snacks ranged from -17 for carbonated soft drinks to 79 for low-fat milk. Although the Dietary Guidelines list specific nutrients to limit and nutrients to encourage, evaluating snacks based on whether they contain nutrients from these lists can obfuscate their overall nutrient profile. Foods like milk and yogurt, for instance, may contain nutrients to limit but also provide many other important nutrients and have high NRF scores. NRF scoring of popular snack foods does not support the overall categorization of snack foods as “unhealthy.”

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