Good carbs or bad?


Good carbs or bad?

Carbs have been getting a bad rap in recent years, but like many things in nutrition, the devil is in the detail, and we shouldn’t be quick to put all carbs into one basket.

While many of us (me included) have probably relied a bit too much on carbohydrate foods for nutrition, there is no reason to shun carbs altogether. Carb-containing foods like whole fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals and legumes are a great source of useful nutrients that we can’t easily get from other foods, and avoiding these can jeopardise the healthfulness of our diet. It comes down to the quality of the carbs we choose.

To help address carbohydrate’s image problem, a group of nutrition experts have developed a system to measure the quality of carbohydrate-containing foods and align this with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Dubbed the Carbohydrate Food Quality Score (CFQS), this measure differentiates between high and low-quality carbs.


What does the Carbohydrate Food Quality Score (CFQS) measure?

Carbohydrate food quality is assessed using the following food components and cut-offs:

  • ≥ 10g fibre per 100g carbohydrate
  • < 10g free sugar per 100g carbohydrate
  • < 600mg sodium per 100g dry weight
  • > 300mg potassium per 100g dry weight and/or
  • ≥ 25g whole grains per 100g dry weight

One point is assigned for each of the cut-offs met, with a maximum of 4 points available for fruit, vegetables and legume-containing foods (which are not a source of whole grains), and a maximum of 5 points for cereal-containing foods.


What foods meet the high-quality carb definition?

Foods that score at least 4 points are deemed to be “high quality” carbohydrates.

In the analysis, this included a high proportion of fruits, vegetables, legumes, some ready-to-eat cereals and oatmeal, and wholegrain bread and crackers.


A few points to note

  • The CFQS was designed for the American context therefore may need to be adapted for other markets. For example, potassium is included because it is a nutrient of concern in the United States, and is often removed during food processing. Potassium is not a nutrient of concern in Australia and New Zealand.
  • The CFQS does not tell us about a food’s nutrient density (i.e. it’s vitamin and mineral content) however, the researchers found the score aligns well with other measures of nutrient density such as the Nutrient-Rich Foods Index and Europe’s Nutri-Score.
  • While the CFQS tells us which carbohydrate foods are best to eat, it does not tell us how much to eat; therefore, serving size recommendations must also be considered.


Our overall thoughts

The CFQS appears to be a useful tool for food businesses to understand the healthfulness of their carb-containing products and brands, and to enable them to market their products responsibly.


Reference: Drewnowski, A., 
Maillot, M., Papanikolaou, Y., et al. (2022). A New Carbohydrate Food Quality Scoring System to Reflect Dietary Guidelines: An Expert Panel Report. Nutrients,14,1485. 10.3390/nu14071485