A FOOD rating system developed by a US university is coming in for criticism for ranking sugary, highly processed cereals among the “most healthful” food choices while relegating natural protein sources including chicken, eggs and beef among the lowest.
The “Food Compass” was developed by a team of nutrition scientists at Tufts University, a private research university.
It purports to draw on a comprehensive system of healthfulness measures to objectively rank more than 8000 foods from “most healthy” – with a highest score of 100 – to “least healthy” – with a lowest score of 1.
It recommends that foods with a score of 70 or more should be encouraged, foods with scores of 31-69 should be consumed in moderation, and anything scoring 30 or lower should be consumed minimally.
Charts produced from the data by investigative science journalist and author Nina Teicholz and shared on social media highlight some of the discrepancies she has uncovered in the Food Compass recommendations.
New chart from Tufts’ new food ranking system.
53 General Mills cereals all healthier than cheddar cheese, milk, egg cooked in butter
Dora the Explorer, Berry Burst Cheerios, Count Chocola, Lucky Charms, Chex Chocolate.
(General Mills funds a Tufts Food Inst 🤨) pic.twitter.com/twz6uxtGka
— Nina Teicholz (@bigfatsurprise) February 7, 2023
Across major food categories, the average Food Compass score was 43.2.
The average score for beef was 24.9 and for poultry 42.67. No item in the meat, poultry or eggs category scored higher than 73, according to one analysis – mean that none of these foods is “to be encouraged.”
By comparison, cheerios and shredded wheat cereals score 95 and 83 respectively, well above a boiled or poached egg for breakfast with a score of just 51.
Even frosted oat cereal with marshmallows scores 51, ranking it on par with an egg and twice as healthy as beef.
Potato chips at 52, snacks such as Reece’s Peanut Buttercups (30) and movie theatre popcorn (26) also all outrank beef.
Drawing attention to the results in a blog post, Nina Teicholz asks “what kind of world” has nutrition science entered into whereby universities and peer-reviewed journals can legitimise advice telling the public to eat more sugary breakfast cereals and fewer eggs.
“In my view, the explanation is that the world of nutrition has become so enmeshed with corporate interests that experts don’t even realize their ‘expert views’ are dangerously close to industry propaganda,” she wrote.
In addition to numerous examples of how the practice of food and pharmaceutical corporations influencing science, professional organizations and conferences has become “completely normalised”, she highlights that Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition’s Food & Nutrition Innovation Institute receives funding from some 60 companies, including those whose products get top ranks in the Food Compass.
“There’s no evidence that these companies paid to be included. Still, regardless of how these items got into the Food Compass, it was the responsibility of the authors (and the peer reviewers) to recognize something was seriously amiss,” she wrote.
In a press release Tufts says the Food Compass is designed to be used to help consumers, food companies and restaurants choose healthier foods.
It also calls for the tool to be used by Government officials to make “sound public nutrition policy”.
Tufts has responded to the social media criticism of Food Compass by saying that the examples showcased tended to be exceptions, rather than the rule.
In a Frequently Asked Questions section of its website the university explains that while it believes the Food Compass works very well on average across thousands of food and beverage products, “with a large and diverse number of products there are always some exceptions”.
“These graphs were created by others to show these exceptions, rather than to show the overall performance of Food Compass and the many other foods for which Food Compass works well.
“But, as objective scientists, we accept constructive criticism and are using this to further improve Food Compass. We are working on an updated version now.”
It also adds that because Food Compass is one of the only food rating systems to give negative points for refined carbohydrates, that food processing, breakfast cereals and breads that are rich in refined grains generally get low scores – “lower than for most eggs, cheeses or unprocessed meats”.
But yet another section of its Food Compass side explains why a restaurant cheeseburger with condiments scores just 13 – the reason for the low score “comes down mostly to the red meat of the burger patty and the refined grains of the bun, which again are both linked with poor health”.
In her blog Nina Teicholz points out that, aside from the many nutrients and complete protein provided by beef, there’s the fact that meat, eggs and cheese contain no glucose and therefore generally don’t raise blood sugar, the primary driver of diabetes as well as the single health factor most strongly associated with poor outcomes from Covid.
“People understand that sugar is bad for health. Many people also understand that grains, which convert to sugar upon eating, can be harmful. Why do our experts not get this?”