In a new study conducted by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, researchers created a “Food Compass” that ranks foods from one to 100, with one being “least healthy” and 100 being “healthiest ” means. Food items were broken down into beverages, grains, fruits, seafood/dairy/eggs/meat, mixed dishes, and savory snacks and desserts, and were evaluated on 54 criteria, including ingredients, additives, and level of processing.
I looked twice to see that ice cream (specifically a nut or chocolate ice cream cone) got a 37, while a multigrain raisin bagel got a strong 19. Almond chocolate M&Ms made it ahead of the bagel at a 43, along with potato chips (baked or plain) at 44 and frozen whole grain French toast at 35.
“Aside from the fact that fresh fruit or vegetables are healthy and a soda is bad for you, the public is incredibly confused about which foods or drinks are more or less healthy,” says Meghan O’Hearn, a graduate student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and one of the authors of the study. She notes that while ice cream’s score isn’t very high, it’s surprising because many people don’t think about the properties of food: ice cream contains proteins, a mix of fats and other vitamins, making it better than more processed foods. She says.
According to the study, foods and beverages with scores of 70 or more are “encouraged,” while foods between 31 and 69 are recommended in moderation, and foods of 30 and below should be minimized.
So what I’m hearing is I should swap my morning bagel for a bowl of ice cream. That looks aggressive.
For Silvia Carli, a qualified nutritionist, ice cream can have a place in the diet, as can multigrain crackers or bagels.
“One shouldn’t necessarily be preferred over the other,” says Carli, emphasizing that processing and additives play a role in health quality. “Would ice cream do even better if they used organic milk and ingredients? Or would crackers fare better than ice cream if organic ingredients were used?”
In addition, each person’s relationship with food is different.
“It’s important to keep the limitations in mind when looking at a food ranking system,” says Alayna Guzak, a registered dietitian at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “There is no diet that fits everyone.”
The numbers might make you wonder what you consider “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Experts say this can be harmful, especially when comparing different types of food, many of which are needed together to diversify your diet.
“This system loses its validity when we compare options across categories. For example, chicken breast scores 61, but chocolate-covered almonds score 78. This may make someone wonder if they should prioritize chocolate-covered almonds over chicken breast,” Carli says.
Other parts of the study seem intuitive, like the high scores for overall categories of different legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins like fish. A handful of fruits such as apricots, blackberries, cherries, and peaches all scored 100 points, salmon and low-fat Greek yogurt scored 95. A handful of processed sweets such as cones and marshmallows scored 1.
This scale can be useful for restaurants, schools, or businesses that aim to prioritize different nutrient-dense foods. It also underscores the importance of whole foods over processed foods, and the mixed dishes category can be an easy focal point for ideas.
But it could also instill rhetoric around food as “good” or “bad.”
“No food should be demonized or given any moral value,” says Carli. “It’s important to remember that recommendations should always be made on an individual basis and that long-term sustainability should always be the ultimate goal when attempting to make helpful decisions.”