ROCHESTER, Minn. -- The latest attempt to rank certain foods higher than others according to healthfulness has turned up some unlikely recommendations.
Nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt: 81. Ground beef: 26.
Canned peaches: 97. Cheddar Cheese: 28.
Lucky Charms: 60. Egg fried in butter: 29.
It's enough to get critics asking: Aren't these the same processed-food biases that gave us the obesity epidemic?
There have been multiple attempts at ranking foods over the years, color-coded, numeric listings hoping to influence the actions of regulators, educators, clinicians, manufacturers and consumers.
The latest is called Food Compass. It was developed by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and has been recently published as an academic article in the journal Nature Food.
“Once you get beyond ‘eat your veggies, avoid soda,’ the public is pretty confused about how to identify healthier choices in the grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant,” cardiologist, professor of medicine and lead author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian said in a statement. “Consumers, policy makers, and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices.”
Food Compass ranks over 8,000 foods on a scale of 1 to 100 based on nutrient ratios, vitamins, minerals, food ingredients, additives, processing, fats, fiber, protein and phytochemicals.
Food and beverages scoring 70 or higher are encouraged. Those scoring 31-69 are advised in moderation. Those below 30 are to be kept to a minimum.
The examples of how foods scored as provided by the authors of Food Compass offered little to challenge the status quo. They placed berries, nuts and curries at the top, and pudding, instant soup and cheeseburgers at the bottom. No surprises there.
But it didn't take long for the curious to find other Food Compass recommendations that appeared to defy reason.
"Lucky Charms, cheerios, sweet potato fries, grape juice & watermelon all score at least twice as high as eggs, cheese & beef in a new healthfulness metric," nutrition researcher Ty Beal wrote on Twitter Oct. 18. "Do we really want this for front-of-package labelling, warning labels, taxation and company ratings?"
Lucky charms, cheerios, sweet potato fries, grape juice & watermelon all score at least twice as high as eggs, cheese & beef in a new healthfulness metric. Do we really want this for front-of-package labelling, warning labels, taxation and company ratings?https://t.co/YgdJCMrpFk pic.twitter.com/SuQog1R0SF— Ty Beal (@TyRBeal) October 18, 2021
Having produced his own graphic that looked as professional as that published by Tufts, Beal, a researcher for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, was quickly charged with cherry-picking outlier examples, fluke ratings that Tufts would likely take a do-over on.
"Why not highlight far lower scores of pita bread, bagels, noodles, pretzels, white rice, savory snacks, more," Mozaffarian asked on Twitter. Those were all foods that he noted had been scored below 20, and were once foods that used to get hearty endorsements on rankings. Mozaffarian also noted that certain cheeses and preparations of egg were promoted on Food Compass.
But there was little getting past that dietary thumbs up for Lucky Charms, a cereal manufactured by Minnesota-based General Mills and one high in sugar.
Beal shared the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts panel for the marshmallow-packed breakfast cereal, calling it "incredibly addictive." He said the cereal is a food that, "regardless of added vitamins and minerals, should not be ranking anywhere near nutrient-dense whole foods like eggs, cheese, and beef, let alone double their score."
On Monday, Oct. 25, the journal Nature Food lifted its website paywall on the Food Compass article, setting researchers free to roam its fine print. It also released a Q&A seeking to address the looming questions over their rating of processed cereals higher than animal foods.
"The current science supports eating whole grains and fiber as a generally healthier choice than eggs, cheese, or red meat," it stated, advancing a familiar dietary consensus that has come increasingly under fire in recent years.
In 2015, experts did away with the proscription against dietary cholesterol, the primary liability for eggs.
Since then, butter has also undergone a renaissance, with high quality research showing no linkage between saturated fat and heart disease and other evidence showing more nuanced understanding of LDL cholesterol, one largely forgiving of all dairy.
All Hail the Peanut Butter Cup?
"I still can't understand how all of these are supposed to be healthier than beef, cheddar cheese, and eggs fried in butter," Beal wrote again on Tuesday, Oct. 26.
He had dug into the Food Compass supplemental material, only to discover that sloppy Joes had scored worse than a certain staple of Halloween bags everywhere. "Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups," as he put it, "are not healthier than beef."
Beal says his primary complaint stems from his work highlighting the nutrient density of a host of oft-maligned animal foods, including beef, cheese and eggs, but also dark leafy greens, shellfish and organ meats.
While nutrient deficiencies are historically a problem in low-income countries, deficiencies of iron, magnesium and folate increasingly afflict women and adolescents in high-income countries.
The Food Compass uproar only marks the latest chapter in an ongoing erosion of settled opinion about food and health.
Once considered gospel, the suggestion that calories and sedentary lifestyles drive obesity recently came under sustained, previously unimaginable attack in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Its roster of highly placed authors argued that health officials concerned about obesity and chronic disease should remake dietary policy around the central role of carbohydrates and insulin. Others have asserted that prohibitions on saturated fat and red meat reflect outdated assertions about diet and health as well.
The areas of agreement when it comes to nutrition are increasingly limited to giving priority to foods closest to their natural form, a trend that stands to give food makers little upon which to rest their health claims.
All of which makes the ranking of food and food products an enterprise increasingly fraught with uncertainty and contention, one even capable of throwing up some whoppers. Not the food kind.