Experts recently established a new set of guidelines to determine the quality and nutritional value of dietary carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are found in all sorts of foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, among others. Some carbohydrates, such as starches and simple sugars, are broken down into glucose and used as the body’s primary fuel sources. Dietary fiber is also a carbohydrate, but it is not digested; instead, it stimulates movement throughout the intestines and helps feed the good bacteria in the gut.1
Ultimately, carbohydrates are a very important macronutrient. According to guidelines set by the Institutes of Medicine, it is recommended that most individuals aim to get between 45 and 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates.2
However, not all carbohydrates are created equal, and some sources are more nutrient-dense than others. For example, refined sugars and refined grains are often considered less nutritious than fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.3 Assessing the nutritional value of carbohydrates is often based on the content of two nutrients: simple sugars and dietary fiber.4,5 Although these are valuable metrics, these foods contain many other vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients, and these important factors might not be accounted for with this approach.
Considering more nutritional factors could potentially yield more accurate measures of the nutritional value of carbohydrate-containing foods. A group of experts and researchers addressed this gap and established two new ways of testing carbohydrate food quality. The guidelines were summarized in a report published to Nutrients.5
The first set of guidelines is the Carbohydrate Food Quality Score (CFQS) – 4. This evaluates the content of four nutrients: dietary fiber, free sugar, sodium, and potassium. The nutritional guidelines of the CFQS-4 recommend that in every 100g of dry weight, the food contains less than 600 milligrams (mg) of sodium and more than 300mg of potassium. Moreover, in 100g of carbohydrate, the CFQS-4 recommends that there should be less than 10g of free sugar and more than 10g of dietary fiber. Carbohydrate-containing foods are ranked on a scale of 0-4, where one point is obtained for meeting the nutritional guideline for each nutrient.5
The second set of guidelines is the CFQS-5; this evaluates all components of the CFQS-4 as well as the food’s content of whole grains. The guidelines recommend that the food contains more than 25g of whole grains in every 100g of dry weight. For this model, carbohydrate-containing foods are ranked on a scale of 0-5, where one point is obtained for meeting the nutritional guideline for each nutrient.
These models consider a food’s content of sodium and potassium, which are key electrolytes. Maintaining a healthy balance between potassium and sodium is important, as consuming too much sodium and too little potassium may be associated with increased blood pressure.6 Having one model consider whole grain content may also be helpful in determining the carbohydrate quality of grain products specifically.
More research is needed to determine the accuracy of the CFQS-4 and CFQS-5 in assessing the nutritional value of a greater variety of carbohydrate-containing foods. Moreover, more research is needed to determine whether factoring other nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, would be feasible for future guidelines.
- EUFIC: Food facts for healthy choices (2020, January 14). The Functions of Carbohydrates in the Body. EUFIC. Accessed 2022, April 11, from https://www.eufic.org/en/whats-in-food/article/the-basics-carbohydrates#:~:text=Introduction,whole%20grains%2C%20fruit%20and%20vegetables.
- Manore, M.M. (2005). Exercise and the institute of medicine recommendations for nutrition. Curr Sports Med Rep 4(4): 193-198. Doi: 10.1097/01.csmr.0000306206.72186.00
- American Heart Association (2018, April 16). Nutrition Basics: Carbohydrates. American Heart Association. Accessed 2022, April 12, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates
- Liu, J., Rehm, C.D., Shi, P. (2020, May 21). A comparison of different practical indices for assessing carbohydrate quality among carbohydrate-rich processed products in the US. Plos One. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0231572
- Drewnowski, A., Maillot, M., Papanikolaou, Y., et al (2022, April 2). A new carbohydrate food quality scoring system to reflect dietary guidelines: an expert panel report. Nutrients 14(7). Doi: 10.3390/nu14071485
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2021, April 12). The role of potassium and sodium in your diet. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Accessed 2022, April 16, from https://www.cdc.gov/salt/potassium.htm
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