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Nutritionists are using a scale to measure how healthy foods are, with some surprising results

August 18, 2022, 9:00 PM UTC
Ice Cream In A Waffle Cone With Vanilla, On Blue Pastel Background
A new study ranking food suggests ice cream is healthier than multigrain bagels.
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In a new study conducted by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, researchers created a “food compass,” giving foods a one through 100 ranking, with one being “least healthful” and 100 being “most healthful.” Foods were broken up by beverages, grains, fruits, seafood/dairy/eggs/meat, mixed dishes and savory snacks and desserts, and rated on 54 criteria including ingredients, additives, and processing extent.

I did a double take when I saw that ice cream (specifically an ice cream cone with nuts or chocolate ice cream) got a 37 while a multigrain bagel with raisins got a stark 19. Almond chocolate M&Ms made it in before the bagel with a 43, along with potato chips (baked or plain) at 44, and whole-grain frozen french toast at 35. 

“Beyond a fresh fruit or vegetable being healthy, and a soda being bad for you, the public is incredibly confused about which foods or drinks are more or less healthy,” says Meghan O’Hearn, a doctoral candidate at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and one of the study’s authors. She notes that while ice cream’s score isn’t extremely high, it comes as a surprise because many people don’t think about the properties within foods: ice cream has protein, a mix of fats and other vitamins making it surpass more processed foods, she says.

According to the study, foods and beverages with scores at or above 70 are “encouraged,” while foods between 31 and 69 are recommended in moderation, and those 30 and below and should be minimized.

So what I’m hearing is, I should swap out my morning bagel with a bowl of ice cream. That seems aggressive. 

For Silvia Carli, a registered dietician, both ice cream and multigrain crackers or bagels can have their place in someone’s diet. 

“One should not be necessarily picked over the other,” says Carli, highlighting that processing and additives play a role in health quality. “Would ice cream score even higher if organic milk and organic ingredients were used? Or would crackers score higher than ice cream if organic ingredients were used?”

Additionally, everyone’s relationship with food differs. 

“It is important to be mindful of limitations when looking at a food ranking system,” says Alayna Guzak, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ diet for everyone.”

The numbers may have you questioning what you consider “healthy” versus “unhealthy,” something experts say can be harmful especially when comparing different types of foods, many of which are needed in tandem to diversify your diet. 

“This system loses its validity when we compare options across categories. For example, chicken breast scores a 61, but chocolate-covered almonds score a 78. This may bring someone to 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 the entire categories of various legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins like fish. A handful of fruits like apricots, blackberries, cherries and peaches all scored 100, with salmon and greek nonfat yogurt at 95. A handful of processed candies like Skittles and marshmallows scored 1. 

This scale may be helpful for restaurants, schools, or businesses that aim to prioritize various nutrient-dense foods. It also highlights the importance of whole foods over processed foods, and the mixed dishes category can be an easy go-to option for ideas. 

But it could also instill the rhetoric around food being either “good” or “bad.”

“No food should be demonized or attributed to a moral value,” Carli says. “It is important to remember that recommendations should always be made on an individual basis and that when trying to make helpful choices, sustainability in the long term should be the number one goal always.”