No, Ice Cream Isn’t Healthier than a Bagel (Necessarily)

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Last week, a viewer named Sam made a request in a YouTube comment, writing “The new Tufts Dietary Compass that rates foods for nutritional value and does, rating things like chocolate ice cream as healthier than a granola bar. Is that for real?” I had not heard anything about this, but my kneejerk reaction was that the scientific rating itself is probably fine and the real problem is probably the way people (that is, the mainstream media) are spinning it. So I googled it and I did find several articles mocking the idea that, for instance, this study says “Ice Cream Is Better for You Than a Multigrain Bagel.”

“Aha,” I thought to myself, “that IS what’s happening: in some cases ice cream IS a healthier choice than a bagel, and surely Tufts researchers are calling for a more nuanced discussion of what we as a society consider “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods.” So I found the actual research and I read it and it turns out NOPE, I was wrong, it’s the opposite: Tufts is calling for a less nuanced take on healthy vs. unhealthy and it’s actually all really stupid and wrong.

Before I go further, a rather obvious content warning but a warning just the same: in this video I will be talking about food and health, and it may be upsetting to people with disordered eating. If you’re one of those people, feel free to give this video a skip.

So. The “Food Compass” was developed by researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and I’ll start with the good news: they have a really nice website where you can go read all about the project, see the profiles of the people behind it, and access the paper, which was actually published last year in Nature Food and which is accessible in full without a subscription. I assume the mainstream articles about it are coming out now because they just got the website up and running but I’m not really positive.

The purpose of the research was to develop an algorithm for sorting foods by how healthy they are, combining a large number of data points together and spitting out a single number from one (eat this and die) to a hundred (eat this to live forever). The end use case, they hope, is for things like food labeling and policy recommendations, supposedly simplifying things for consumers and politicians and others so they can easily make healthy decisions. Foods scored above 70 are “to be encouraged,” those 31-69 are to be consumed “in moderation” and under 30 are “to be minimized.”

The researchers took into account a number of aspects of a food, including nutrient ratios, additives, vitamins, minerals, and how they’re processed. They averaged all these things together to come up with each food’s final score, leading to, well, absolute fucking chaos: yes, ice cream beats bagels, but also Lucky Charms beat a whole egg fried in butter. Canned pineapple in heavy syrup beat cheddar cheese. Honey Nut Cheerios beat skinless chicken breast. And watermelon tied kale for the healthiest spot. All of these things are, well, wrong. God forbid, if Skynet ever takes over and tries to raise humans like farm animals to be as healthy as possible, we’d all have diabetes and protein deficiencies.

Before I get into the weeds here, let me declare my conflicts of interest: I’m a pescetarian who eats a mostly vegetarian diet. I also work out and am trying to build muscle, so even though I don’t eat non-seafood meat, I do place a big emphasis on getting enough protein.

While I’m at it I guess I’ll mention the authors’ conflicts of interest: in the paper they write that the lead author “receives personal fees from Acasti Pharma, Barilla, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Danone and Motif FoodWorks; is on the scientific advisory boards of Brightseed, Calibrate, DayTwo (ended June 2020), Elysium Health, Filtricine, Foodome, HumanCo, January Inc., Perfect Day, Season and Tiny Organics; and receives chapter royalties from UpToDate.” 

Another author, Jeffrey B. Blumberg, only “reports personal fees from Guiding Stars Licensing Company” but his CV on Tufts’ website says that he’s also on advisory boards for the Cranberry Institute and the Cranberry Marketing Committee of USDA, Segterra, Inc, SmartyPants Vitamins, the California Walnut Commission, and the California Prune Board. Until 2017, he had spent 7 years on the editorial board for Herbalife Nutrition Institute, which is, of course, a pyramid scheme.

And while he’s not listed as an author on the paper, the Food Compass website lists Colin Rehm as a “team member,” and links to his Google Scholar profile showing that he is employed by PepsiCo Global Research and Development. In 2020 Rehm coauthored a paper with several of the Food Compass authors, and in that paper’s conflicts of interest he “reports consulting fees from the Dairy Management Institute, PepsiCo, General Mills, Unilever and Florida Department of Citrus.”

General Mills makes Cheerios and Lucky Charms and came out as the healthiest brand overall for rices and grains. PepsiCo owns Quaker Oats (instant oatmeal got a 79) and Tropicana (orange juice got a 78).

This shouldn’t negate their findings but it should make us all take a bit of a harder look at them: how exactly did they determine that, for instance, Frosted Mini Wheats are rated as 71 (to be encouraged) and a boiled egg is rated as 51 (eat in moderation)? Because when you look at them side-by-side, you can see that one serving of Frosted Mini Wheats without milk has 210 calories, most of which come from carbohydrates, which mostly comes from the 12 grams of added sugar. That’s about a quarter of the recommended value of sugar, for the record.

As cereals go, it’s not horrible. But I choose a healthier breakfast, which is the “to be consumed in moderation” egg. The egg has ? of the calories but more protein and fat and zero sugar, meaning that I will stay full longer and reach my muscle-building goals faster. I don’t have high cholesterol so the 185 milligrams don’t bother me at all and I get plenty of vitamins and minerals in the rest of my day’s eating so I don’t need to eat fortified grains.

It’s a no-brainer even when you’re eating just one serving of the cereal without milk or extra sugar, which no one does because that’s psychotic: cereal is a lot of sugar that’s just not very good for you, and which will leave you starving before you get to lunch. The egg is healthier in general but yes, if you have high cholesterol, it may be “healthier” for you to eat your sad, dry cup of frosted mini wheats.

That’s why even if this algorithm put the egg on top, I would still be critical of it: you can’t just slap a number on a bunch of different foods to determine what’s healthier or not.

Here’s another example: frozen and then deep fried sweet potato fries are healthier (69) than skinless chicken breast (61)? I’m sorry, but no. As a pescetarian I obviously don’t even eat chicken breast but it’s one of the healthiest things a meat eater can consume: 85 grams of chicken breast has only 120 calories, a whopping 26 grams of protein, negligible fat, and zero sugar. Nothing that you cook in a deep fat fryer is ever going to be healthier than that, but particularly a starch with more calories, more sugar, more fat, and less protein for the same weight. In fact, the Food Compass finding for sweet potato fries and chips was so outrageously bonkers that the researchers had to make an entire supplementary text to explain it away: it’s a whole lot of excuses but it boils down to “but the potassium!” Which, really, we don’t have to worry about because we ate a bowl of fortified sugar for breakfast, right?

One big problem here is that they massively overestimated the negative health effects of animal products, and I say that as someone who thinks Americans eat far too many animal products to the detriment of their health and to the environment. This was pointed out by a group of food scientists who wrote this letter of concern, which also points out that the compass UNDERestimates the negative health effects of ultraprocessed food, like cereal and juice and ice cream. If you’re curious about what it means for a food to be “ultra” processed, check out this video I made in 2019 where I define it and explain why it may be a bad thing, but the tl;dw is that ultraprocessed foods often end up with poorer nutrition AND they are specially formulated to make us eat them in much greater quantities than we realize or even than we want. Flaming Hot Cheetos are basically one nanobot advancement from jumping into your open mouth while you’re sleeping.

But that critique also points out that the Food Compass misclassified some things like sauteed kale and spinach as “ultraprocessed,” a criticism that was repeated in a letter published on Nature Food that is unfortunately behind a paywall, but the author of the previous letter has a thread summarizing it.

I could go on and on about how bad the Food Compass’s reductive take is, but essentially the take home here is that Tufts is doing precisely the opposite of what they set out to do: instead of “simplifying” things by giving all foods one handy number, they’ve made food choices overwhelmingly confusing and complicated when they do not have to be. Yes, nutrition science can get complicated but choosing healthy things to eat doesn’t have to be, and honestly efforts like this only help the multi-billion dollar snack and fast food industry. They want you to see headlines like “ice cream is just as healthy as a bagel” so that you will just throw your hands in the air and say “Well I guess I may as well just eat nothing but sugary garbage!”

Here’s the way to simplify it, once again, from Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Try to eat whole foods you find in the vegetable aisle or the meat and seafood section. Try not to use too much oil when you cook. If you’re trying to watch your weight (whether losing it or gaining it or making sure it stays steady), weigh your foods and count the calories using free online databases. Try not to drink your calories, because that’s just going to be sugar – yes, including alcohol. These are all boring things that you probably already know but they work. It can be hard to avoid delicious sugary cereal and ice cream and sweet potato fries but it’s pretty simple, regardless of what some food scientists at Tufts say.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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