Bogus Food Ratings

The Lempert Report
January 23, 2023

The tipping point on food nutrient profiling came on January 14th when Joe Rogan decided to post on Instagram his thoughts on what we should eat and how the latest work from the Tuft’s University Food Compass was in his words "complete, undeniable, indefensible bullshit." He added, "But yet this government funded recommendation chart is here to let you know they suck at giving food advice too." I’m not the first one to ask Rogan to keep his nose and mouth out of things he is neither knowledgeable about or qualified to talk and post about. Headlines make all the difference in our world today – and when Good Ranchers posted an article “New Government Funded Food Pyramid Says Lucky Charms are Healthier Than Steak” – the internet lit up. Let’s get some facts out there: first there is no ‘new’ food pyramid, second no one, especially Tufts, is promoting Lucky Charms as part of a healthy diet and most important – Good Ranchers is a company that sells meat, poultry and seafood products online. This is a cheap shot and one that I am sure is designed to increase their sales built on the idea that consumers are just plain stupid. The chart that Rogan and Good Ranchers are promoting was designed by Tufts to actually demonstrate how the current systems that are used to rank the healthfulness of foods is in disrepair. Tufts is challenging the methodology behind their and others nutrient profiling systems – which is a good thing and, in my view, long overdue.

Tufts issued a study - "Limitations of the Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System." Tufts’ Food Compass evaluates foods across 9 domains which then assigns a score of the food between 1 and 100 – 100 being the most healthful. According to their algorithim and 9 domains the chart DID show a more healthful rating for the cereal than it did for ground beef, no question. But it was developed to make the point that we need a better nutrient profiling system. Watermelon and Kale, according to the rankings came out as the perfect foods. Both are healthy no question – but the perfect nutrients? Far from it. What we as an industry need to do is to be smarter, develop a better system and communicate it to consumers in a much clearer way. We have a real problem – according to the latest NIH data, 30.7% of adults are overweight and 42.4% are obese. What we need is honest clear communication that frankly can’t be hijacked by people who want to make headlines. The nutrition scientists who put the chart together (using Food Compass' data) contended the following in their paper: "While a conceptually impressive effort, we propose that the chosen algorithm is not well justified and produces results that fail to discriminate for common shortfall nutrients, exaggerate the risks associated with animal-source foods, and underestimate the risks associated with ultra-processed foods. We caution against the use of Food Compass in its current form to inform consumer choices, policies, programs, industry reformulations, and investment decisions."

I am not here to argue whether the Food Compass NPS is good or bad – what I am here to state is that ALL of the current nutrient profiling is based on a serious flaw. That all foods are the same. The average supermarket has over 50,000 products, or at least it did prior to the pandemic, and using one NPS to rate the 50+ different categories of foods available is simply wrong. What Tufts and all the other NPS systems must do is develop nutritional criteria based on each category. Clearly breakfast cereal and meats need to be evaluated on different criteria – as do sodas and juices, canned vs. fresh soups or vegetables, breads vs. toaster pastries and so on. Until someone steps up and develops nutrient profiles by categories and stop using a catch-all profile – because its easier – we will continue to mislead and misinform our shoppers; and do nothing to help them choose better foods.