Thursday, August 26, 2010

ANDI Scores

Do you know what ANDI scores are?

I had to go to Whole Foods the other day because I needed a loaf of sprouted grain bread and Whole Foods or Fairway are the only places I know of that sell it. I am sure there are other smaller health food stores, but when I need something, I just need it—okay? I don’t want to have to search around at 10 stores or spend 30 minutes on the internet trying to find a place. Anyway, I go into whole foods and I see a sign showing the ANDI score of every vegetable in the produce section. ANDI stand for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. This is a system that scores food items based on their, what else, nutrient density. For example, soda gets a 1 and a bunch of Kale gets a 1000.

This just brings up a whole host of questions in my mind. I almost don't even know where to begin. I did find a great article on about the scoring system. The system was invented by Dr Joel Fuhrman in the late 1990's as a way to identify foods that are nutrient rich but low in calories. Basically, a high ANDI score is a way to identify a food that is a good 'bang for your buck' in nutrient/ caloric terms.

At first glance I thought this would be a great easy system. And then I started looking around. I found kale, that got that high score of 1000, Bok Choy got an impressive 824 and radishes got a surprising 554. But then something funny started to happen...I got into the sweeter and higher carb vegetables like carrots (336) and butternut squash (136) and potatoes (43) and the numbers all went down so low. Is Whole Foods trying to suggest that Kale has more value in our diets than carrots on purpose? Or are they just doing it inadvertently?

I do get the point, Whole Foods is trying to steer customers toward healthier foods, more fruits and vegetables, and items that have more nutrients. However there are some major flaws to the ANDI scores.

The ANDI system measures a whole host of vitamins and antioxidants, Calcium, Caretinoids, Folate, Iron, B Vitamins, Vitamins C and E, among several others. But it does not differentiate among the vitamins in the scoring process, nor does it offer the consumer a way to easily diversify their nutrient intake. One could say that this is because the system does not want to FAVOR any vitamin over any other. It does not take into consideration that some vitamins like iron or beta carotene are available in such low calorie foods like kale while other caretenoids are found in higher calories veggies like carrots or butternut squash that happen to include sugar. Kale might be higher in it's nutrient content per calorie than any other food, but it does not contain ALL the nutrients one needs in a day. So in my opinion any food nutrient guide that allows for a perfect score for one food that doesn't have all your RDAs for all nutrients is a flawed guide.

The system overall rates all foods, not just whole foods. So my second biggest issue is that Whole Foods is only labeling vegetables, pitting plums against peaches and tomatoes against potatoes. But while Fuhrman's guide does give soda an ANDI score of 1 (actually .6 to be more exact) none of the soda's sold by Whole Foods have their ANDI scores displayed like all their healthy counterparts do in the produce section. Does anyone else see the irony in this?? Whole Foods has adopted a system that gives high/ low marks to all foods and then only displays the results of the healthiest foods in their stores, produce? This robs the consumer of the ability to make clear decisions across all food products in the store. All it does is make some vegetables look less desirable than others. In a country where we need to eat more vegetables, like 3 or more time more than we are currently eating every day, we need to do everything we can as a culture to promote any whole fresh vegetables to be consumed, not make you feel guilty for eating zucchini because it only gets a 43 (zucchinis are still healthy by the way).

My third biggest issue with this system is really more of an issue with Whole Foods. Each produce item's ANDI score is clearly labeled with the number on that laminated sheet that they use to tell you tidbits about the kind of veg you are buying. You see that and a very short description talking about the guide. The one page sheet explaining the index was displayed by the escalator that one uses to enter the produce department. You can see it as you are descending, but once you are down stairs, a post blocks it from view and you have to crane your neck over some cheese display to get a good look at it. At least that is what it was like at Union Square. This means they are doing a good job telling people what the scores ARE but not a good job telling people what the scores MEAN. If I have learned anything in the last few years reading about nutrition and our eating habits in the US I have learned that left to our own devices Americans will instinctively attach good/ bad status to high/ low scores on any scale. The Whole Foods customer is absolutely doing this. Don't kid yourself.

This is a shame because I visited Dr Fuhrman's website and it does seem like he has the right idea about nutrition. His food pyramid is right in line with my own beliefs. And I don't even want to bring up the issue of personal/ corporate responsibility. If Whole Foods is going to adopt a nutrient index it should be prepared to educate their customers. Especially since they have adopted an index that gives a lower score to Olive Oil (9) than to White Pasta(18), Potato Chips(11), or American Cheese(10). It might even be a help if we ate the same serving of white pasta as olive oil, but of course that is not taken into consideration.

We can make numbers say anything. If you don't believe me, ask the guys that used to run Enron. But as consumers we must drill into what the numbers are saying. In my opinion, ANDI scores give us some interesting information. But it is not really ALL the information that I need to make wise decisions for me and my family on what to eat.

So if I can't use the system to decide what to eat, what is it for?


  1. COB, have you written to Whole Foods about this or discussed it with a store manager? It would probably be helpful to them to know that their customers believe it is the company's responsibility to educate its customers about how to use the scores since it posts them.

    It's entirely possible that Whole Foods has not "adopted" ANDI scores (I assume you mean endorsing the scores when you say this) and is merely providing the scores to accommodate customers who care about them and choose to shop by them. They may well have been asked by some of their customers to post ANDI scores for produce.

    I personally think ANDI scores are 100% pure b.s. Iceberg lettuce, for example, is more than twice as nutrient dense as a mango? Give me a break.

    You said, "....I don't even want to bring up the issue of personal/ corporate responsibility. If Whole Foods is going to adopt a nutrient index it should be prepared to educate their customers.... " That's a little like saying that if they offer me a free recipe, it's their corporate responsibility to teach me how to cook. After all, they have adopted this recipe and they're profiting from the ingredients I bought from them to make the dish. If I ruin the dish, it's Whole Foods' fault for not teaching me to cook.

    I guess we respectfully disagree with one another about Whole Foods' responsibility when it comes to educating its customers about how to use ANDI scores. I'm comfortable seeing the scores posted in their stores and just ignoring them since I think they're completely useless anyway. You should at least give Whole Foods a chance to consider what you would like them to do. You just might be pleasantly surprised. In fact, it's entirely possible that they currently do offer information about how to use ANDI scores.

    As for that sign posted in a spot that's difficult to access, you should let the produce manager or store manager know that. They'll probably move it right away. You don't even have to let them know in person. You can email the store. If they're anything like the people in my local Whole Foods markets, they'll promptly fix the problem and promptly let you know that they've done so. AND they will sincerely thank you for letting them know about it. They aim to do the right thing every time but like you and me, they're not perfect. It's the customer's responsibility to show them where they can improve and I know from experience that they do listen to their customers. Really, I don't think we can ask for more.

  2. You make some good points thank you. I am so glad that you took the time to say all of this!

    I should write Whole Foods. Perhaps they will have some good information. I didn't want this post to come across as a slam of Whole Foods. I like their stores, I will continue to shop their. But unlike a recipe (which is a suggestion among thousands), with ANDI scores, they are diseminating nutritional information which I feel requires more follow up. And perhaps I wasn't clear, the guide seems correct at face value and easy to follow, possibly leading people to assume that iceberg lettuce IS better for you than a mango. Perhaps people are smarter than this and it is no big deal. But I believe that Whole Foods should be responsible and not display ANDI scores because they offer little in the way of fact.

  3. After I posted that comment last night, I hopped on the Whole Foods site for my store (Glastonbury, CT). It says that they've partnered with Eat Right America to develop the scores. I was unaware of the depth of their involvement when I wrote my comment. I do see your point about some people misconstruing the scores. Nutritionally speaking, iceberg is little more than a vehicle for salad dressing but I know plenty of people who think they're eating something very healthy when they have a nice big bowl of iceberg lettuce with some bottled chemical concoction that passes for fat free ranch dressing. Many of those people wouldn't even know a mango if it slapped them in the face. They were making that choice long before ANDI scores but now they have ANDI scores to prove that they're better off eating iceberg lettuce as opposed to a face-slapping mango. No doubt they're passing this concept onto the next generation, too. Nice work, Whole Foods.

    Like I said, I really don't pay attention to ANDI scores when it comes to deciding what to buy/eat but I shopped at Whole Foods last night and in light of our conversation here, I paid closer attention to how they were presenting the scores. One thing that does puzzle me is that they don't post ANDI scores for all or even most produce and, as you brought up, they don't seem to post scores in departments outside produce at all (although I need to visit my store again to be sure I wasn't overlooking any signs). The ANDI signage is very spotty. I mean, are they behind the scores or not?

    I love reading your blog, COB! I've been trying to clean up my dietary act recently, too, and your posts really get me thinking about some things I might not have thought about otherwise. Thank YOU for that.

  4. I know you wrote this article about six months ago -- but for what it's worth, Whole Foods Team Members (I am one) ARE in fact alerted to this naivety of the system when it comes to nutrient balance. Team Members are asked when speaking of the ANDI system to outline the fact that its still important to get a nutrient balance (like including lots of legumes that show up with really low scores but often provide nutrients not found easily in a lot of other diets -- particularly vegetarian ones with narrow breadth). I didn't read the full post, but you are entirely right -- ANDI scores only go so far as a helpful guide. That said having a kale smoothie at the base of a diet isn't hurtful when it comes to nutrient loading. :) Cheers.

  5. Regarding the mango vs. iceberg lettuce issue..... I think the people bristling at the idea that the iceberg is represented as "healthier" are forgetting that we are talking nutrient DENSITY. So while the mango certainly does have more nutrients than the watery iceberg lettuce, calorie for calorie the lettuce gets the higher score.

    Also, as Chudds says, if you do a little reading into the ANDI system, they say outright that you need to combine high scoring items with lower scoring ones. This ensures you get a balance of nutrients and simply enough calories to subsist.

  6. @Allison, I completely understand that the scoring system measures nutrients versus calories. I will admit that until Chudds commented I did not know how Whole Foods handled the system in regards to training their associates. So I am thankful that he commented!

    I am pleased that those who created the ANDI scoring system admit that you need to combine high and low scoring items. But I don't believe there is anything within the system to differentiate low scoring items like olive oil (9) which we all deem healthful and potato chips (11). If your answer to me is that it is common sense that we should eat olive oil instead of potato chips, then I would say that the system is not what is helping you to decide what to eat, your common sense is.

    I think ANDI scores are completely accurate for what they are. They are a measure of certain nutrients divided by calories. I think it is a nice guage of which veggies offer you more nutrients. But when it comes to low scoring items, the scoring system doesn't do enough to differentiate between healthful items and non-healthful items. It is a flawed system in that regard. So I support Whole Foods displaying ANDI scores for veggies only because at least there it makes a little sense.

    But it can't be used to help someone decide what to eat for their entire diet, and that is what this country needs. That is why I opt for non or minimally processed foods, because tht is a sure fire way to get better nutrition and higher nutrient density. ANDI scores provide INTERESTING information. But INTERESTING does not always equate to USEFUL.

  7. I cited this page in my book. Thank you for the analysis of ANDI. More people should know about this.