Nutrient profiling tool to simplify healthy snacking

A PhD student at North West University’s Centre of Excellence for Nutrition has adapted an international nutrient profiling tool that will make it easier for South Africans to adopt healthy snacking habits. Mrs Marina Visser reviewed the acclaimed Nutrient-Rich Foods (NRF) index specifically for the South African population. She presented the tool to delegates at the Nutrition Congress held in the Cape on 3 September.

The Nutrient Rich Foods index is an American science-based system. It takes into consideration nutrients to limit saturated fat, added sugar and salt, while encouraging those that are necessary.

The NRF algorithm generates a single score for individual foods or meals. It may help to identify the most nutrient-dense foods with relatively few kilojoules/calories.

“Epidemiologist Professor Adam Drewnowski from Washington University’s Center for Public Health Nutrition developed the NFR in 2010. He has since recommended that countries adapt the system to their local needs,” she comments.


Visser, together with other senior nutrition experts, used the NRF to develop a localised nutrient profiling method after completing a scientific literature review in 2015. This evaluated the national nutritional status of South African children, taking data from various surveys conducted between 1999 and 2012.

The review indicated that over the 13-year period:

  • Children aged 1-9 years showed significant micro-nutrient deficiencies. Especially in calcium, iron, zinc as well as vitamin A and several B vitamins
  • Obesity levels among children had increased rapidly.

“Obesity in children aged 2-14 years has increased on average from 10,6% to 18,2%. And from 21% to 27% in adolescents aged 15-17 years,” comments Visser.

She says this is a concern in South Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found convincing evidence that ‘high intake of energy-dense foods is linked to the global obesity epidemic.’

The information on snack consumption by school children was collected from single studies, due to the lack of national data. It indicated that ‘most commonly eaten snacks comes from the groups of savoury snacks, sweets, chocolates and biscuits. These are generally associated with a low nutritional value and a high energy intake.’

Popular South African snacks that account for 80% of snack foods according to a 2008 study, are potato crisps, kota (a half loaf of white bread filled with processed cheese or meat and deep fried chips), sweet biscuits and chocolate.

Visser’s review assessed the overall nutrient profile of 120 snack foods and beverages

They compared it to the foods recommended by the Food Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDG) for South Africa. The results were clustered and the foods that we should encourage (eat daily) were favourable to the FBDG recommendations. In addition, the foods that should be limited (eaten occasionally) also matched the advice of the FBDG.

“Replacing current energy-rich and nutrient-poor snack foods with healthier options like low-fat milk products (e.g. yoghurt and low-fat milk), fruit, vegetables, lean meats, fish and eggs would not only improve diet quality among children, but could also help curb overweight and obesity,” remarks Visser.

Studies have shown that yoghurt and dairy products are nutrient-dense foods with lower kilojoule (energy) value that not only provide vital nutrients, but also are also good sources of the missing nutrients in our duets like protein and calcium.

nutrient yoghurt

Healthy snacking plays an important role in weight maintenance and nutrient intake. It helps to manage blood glucose by decreasing hunger and improving appetite control. A healthy snacking habit should ideally start during childhood and adolescence when foundations for eating are established.

Visser is confident her adapted NRF nutrient profile can be a useful tool to educate people. If you make smarter snacks choices from every food group, you can meet the recommended nutrients without exceeding your kilojoule intake.



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