RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (Newswise) — As part of an effort to help consumers better understand a food’s nutrition value, researchers at RTI International developed an algorithm that gives food an overall nutrition score that could make it easier for consumers to make healthy food choices.

The algorithm, published in the December issue of Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, ranks foods based on a continuous numerical score, with higher points identifying healthier foods.

“Our goal was to develop a nutrient profiling algorithm that was evidence based and included the latest dietary recommendations,” said Joanne Arsenault, Ph.D., a nutrition policy analyst at RTI and the study’s lead author. “This research will be useful for developing point-of-purchase nutrition labeling systems, educating consumers, and assessing overall dietary quality.”

As expected, fruits and vegetables scored highest. For example, raw spinach scores 215.7. And sweets score low – sweetened soft drinks scored (-24.8).

“Some foods have extreme scores due to the high content of the nutrient compared to recommendations,” Arsenault said.

For example, dill pickles earned a score of (-240.9), lower than soft drinks, because of their very high sodium content.

Most nutrient profiling systems developed to date weigh nutrients equally. The new RTI algorithm uses a statistical regression approach of nutrient intakes of 16,500 participants from the 2005-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to predict overall dietary quality as measured by the Healthy Eating Index.

This algorithm included positive weighting factors for protein, unsaturated fat, fiber, calcium, and vitamin C and negative weighting factors for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

The RTI algorithm is unique in that it incorporates unsaturated fat based on the suggestion in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that consumers should replace saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.

An advantage to the RTI algorithm is that it can easily be used to score the nutritional quality of overall diets as well as individual foods.

The research was funded by Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.