Think twice about that granola bar in the morning because, yes you’re reading this correctly, ice cream may be a better option.
A new study from Tufts University in Boston has created the “Food Compass,” a “nutrient profiling system” that ranks how healthy foods are by giving options a score.
And the system is turning some preconceived notions of health on their head, namely ranking a granola bar lower than a chocolate ice cream cone topped with nuts.
Researchers spent three years investigating over 8,000 different types of food and drink, examining 54 different attributes and using “cutting edge science” to rank them — giving them a score between 0 and 100, with 100 being the most healthy.
Unsurprisingly, whole foods like fruits and vegetables ranked highly on the list — with spinach scoring a perfect 100 — whereas processed foods and fast foods like burgers with all the condiments are lower.
While the scoring is a straightforward system, the surprises came when comparing foods thought to be “healthy” with those often deemed “unhealthy.”
Fans of sweet treats will be thrilled to learn that chocolate ice cream with nuts scored 35 points while a coconut and chocolate granola bar received just 15 points. However frozen yogurt, a treat touted as the healthy alternative to ice cream, only scored 23.
Professor Dariush Mozaffarian told the Daily Mail the reason the granola bar ranks lower than ice cream is that it’s made of “mostly refined starch and sugar” while its dairy competitor contains protein and nutrients.
When choosing breakfast, something involving eggs seems like a solid choice, but according to the Food Compass, an egg omelet — a dish many would perceive as being healthy — ranked only 51, while Cheerios scored a 95.
The compass identified eggs are high in protein and contain several micronutrients, but said most studies have shown them to be generally neutral for risk of major diseases.
Eggs are still a healthier breakfast choice than ultra-processed cereal like cornflakes (16), but not as good as plain instant oatmeal (75), with whole grains and fiber proven to boost heart health.
Determined to shake up your morning routine, the “Food Compass” also suggests dropping your morning espresso (55) for a skimmed milk cappuccino (73).
As for how to use the “Food Compass” in everyday life, study authors encouraged more regular consumption of food and drinks scoring over 70 while foods in the 31 to 69 range are recommended to be consumed in moderation only. Options under 30 should be minimized, they said.
Across major food categories, the average Food Compass score was 43.2, as published in Tufts Now and the journal Nature.
- The lowest scoring category was snacks and sweet desserts (average score 16.4).
- The highest scoring categories were vegetables (average score 69.1), fruits (average score 73.9, with nearly all raw fruits receiving a score of 100), and legumes, nuts and seeds (average score 78.6).
- Among beverages, the average score ranged from 27.6 for sugar-sweetened sodas and energy drinks to 67 for 100% fruit or vegetable juices.
- Starchy vegetables scored an average of 43.2.
- The average score for beef was 24.9; for poultry, 42.7; and for seafood, 67.
The team said it’s the “most comprehensive and science-based to date” and hopes to “clear up confusion to benefit consumer [and] policymakers.”
According to the study, the characteristics and domains were selected based on nutritional attributes linked to major chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and cancer, as well as to risk of undernutrition, especially for mothers, young children and the elderly.
“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,” said Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, who was part of the team of researchers who created the Food Compass.
“Consumers, policymakers and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices.”
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