You are what you eat (And I’m about a B-)

Like many people, I use heuristics when choosing between food products. My algorithm goes something like this:

  1. What’s the lowest unit price? 25 cents per ounce vs. 40 cents per ounce?
  2. Pick up the lowest
  3. Look at the saturated fat RDI
  4. If reasonable, look at ingredients
  5. Is list too long to read in 3 seconds?
  6. If yes, pick up next cheapest item for comparison.
  7. If no, look for “partially hydrogonated” or “high fructose corn syrup”
  8. If either found, pick up next cheapest item for comparison
  9. If neither found, purchase.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone did steps 3-9 for me? Or if they considered factors I’m too lazy or uneducated enough to balance and comprehend? Well, the ONQI has stepped up to the challenge. The ONQI, or Overall Nutritional Quality Index, is coming to products near you as a single scale for all foods. As the site states, it finally allows the comparison of apples to oranges (oranges win, by the way.)
One of the things I’m most impressed with is the ONQI’s use of the entire scale. Unlike choosing wine by points (where nearly every advertised bottle is above 88 points on a 100 scale), on the ONQI soda gets a 1 while oranges get 100. Now we know that although pretzels aren’t bad for you… they certainly aren’t good for you with a rating of eleven. Eleven is a lot closer to Coca-cola than it is to oranges.

The second thing I’m impressed with is their attempt at transparency. Their conference presentations are available online. However, due to patent, the actual algorithm used is not available. We are asked to trust that experts have tested it and found it reliable. Hopefully this will change as soon as the patent expires and it may be examined by numerous independent investigators.

One thing it does not do (that the food pyramid has been trying to do for 50 years) is recommend a balanced diet. Oranges and strawberries may score 100s, but a pure diet of those won’t do much but prevent rickets. However, I like their concept of attacking the nutrition problem at a food-by-food level. If I have my meal basically planned, I can use the scale to decide between individual options.

Last, I enjoyed this bit from their website:

What about products that don’t score well? Aren’t you at risk of alienating some brands? The ONQI was developed based on sound science, independent of any food company or commodity organization bias. Since the ONQI can be applied to all foods, beverages, recipes and meals, it levels the playing field, and provides consumers with a universal tool to measure any food they wish to purchase. It can also provide a benchmark for product development and reformulation.

The failed food pyramid is a good example of how difficult it is to create a nationwide understanding of a complex topic. The ONQI does the work for the consumer; work we’re clearly not interested in doing ourselves. I’m going to be watching closely to see how the ONQI pans out in studies of purchasing behavior changes.

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