Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”

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Occasional mental confusion is common as one grows older and is nothing to be particularly alarmed about. Really smart people have told me that repeatedly over the years, and I’ve taken comfort in what they said.  Especially when I repeatedly forget where I put my car keys (typically in my coat pocket). Or where I’ve left my reading glasses (usually on my head). Or what my Amazon account password is (a highly punctuated profanity).

But I’ve got to admit I was thrown for a very serious loop when I came across something called the Tufts Food Compass Score…

In case you haven’t heard, the Food Compass Score is supposed to be the latest and best offering from the Really Smart Scientists Community for people trying to make better choices about the food they eat.  The Score applies page after page after page of detailed and elaborately footnoted criteria for judging just how good for us various foods are.

There are all sorts of smart-sounding evaluative criteria related to diet and nutrition, chemistry, biology and all the other subjects I either failed or scraped by with a solid “D” in high school and college.

So I was prepared to be wowed by this newest and supposedly simplest way to judge the food options I have and the choices I make every day. Lord knows I want to live a long, long time. More accurately, I need to live a lot longer if I’m ever going to pay my way out of debt. And what’s better for that than a smart-decision-making tool based on science from an outfit like Tufts University?

Now this prestigious institution has gone and made me wonder: either I’m having a serious period of senior mental confusion, or my faith in the Tufts name and reputation may be misplaced.

You see, the conclusions drawn in their new Food Compass create some real mental disconnects for me. Foods that I like and thought of as at least somewhat “healthy” and good for me fare poorly on the Food Compass. Many I considered suspect at best rank nearer the top of their charts. I don’t pretend to be a scientist or an intellectual, but I have survived seven decades by making what I think are halfway intelligent decisions about what I eat.

The Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System evaluates more than eight thousand foods and beverages, spanning all major food categories against a complex mix of science-based measures related to nutrition and health. The formula also tries to consider foods that are actually mixtures of different foods, such as pizza. Each food winds up with a cumulative score based on a scale of 100 points. The higher the point ranking, the better the food is supposed to be for me.

Foods and beverages scoring 30 or below are to be “minimized.” Those with scores of 70 or better are to be “encouraged.” Anything in between – you’re on your own to decide.

That’s a big help to indecisive chowderheads like me.

What in the world makes anyone at Tufts think I won’t automatically decide ‘yes’ on anything I already like and “no” on anything I don’t? Some help that middle group is to me.

The whole idea is to boil all the complex and sometimes controversial aspects of judging a food’s ‘healthiness’ into a simple number that people can use to make faster, better decisions about what they eat. And food manufacturers are somehow supposed to use the scores to make better decisions about producing ‘healthy’ food products.

It sounds great. But so did the aluminum siding I bought for our first old termite-infested starter house so many years ago. Or that timeshare in Orlando the aggressive and clean-cut salesperson touted after a golf-cart tour of the beautifully landscaped resort next to the mosquito-rich swamp and pitcher of complimentary margaritas.

This is where life experience and faith in science come into apparent conflict.

Now, if I have the patience to look at the aggregate scores for various food categories, it seems to make a bit more sense. Veggies, fruits, legumes, and nuts all show up in the top tier of ‘good’ food choices. Salty and overly-sweet dessert foods and sugary beverages fare exceptionally poorly. Beef ranks in the bottom category, poultry in the middle, and seafood a mere three points out of the top-tier ranking.

But let’s get to the specifics that really get my goat. Or, more accurately, consider some of the individual scores that leave me still feeling a bit puzzled, or as my geriatric-specialist doctor says, “a touch confused.”

Am I to believe that a bowl of Fruit Loops is healthier for me for breakfast than a plain bagel? Are Lucky Charms to be chosen over steak? Chocolate-covered almonds over cheddar cheese?

I guess my childhood wasn’t so deprived after all – eating Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast was listed as healthier than oatmeal.

The hamburger I grew up eating rates only 26 measly points on the 100-point scale, but Honey Nut Cheerios is 73. What about a fake egg fried in vegetable oil is 69, while a real egg fried in butter is only 28. Orange juice with calcium – basically a glycemic-spiking drink with a daily allotment of 24 grams of sugar – rates a whopping 87 over fiber foods such as millet or whole wheat bread. Whole milk is smack-dab in the middle of the middle (“to be moderated”) category, but plain whole-milk yogurt grabs 81 points out of 100.  May the gods help energy drinks, who earn next to no points at all.

I also grew up watching reruns of I Love Lucy, and to this day I still use the same politically incorrect line from that show when I have disputes with my wife. “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.” I’ve read and re-read and re-read the Tufts Food Compass and all sorts of notes from the academics and observations in the media from specialists in nutrition and health. I still have the unshakeable faith in facts, reason and science that was drummed into me over countless years.

But I still can’t help but feel confused far more than enlightened by all this. My colleagues at Dirt to Dinner have agreed to post some of the data and charts from the Food Compass, so you can make of it what you will. Make your own judgments. You’re smart people. Smarter than me, I have no doubt.

But I’m going to continue to rely on my own judgment far more than any single study or set of recommendations. It may not be a perfect system. But I’m no fool. I can find information I need to make good decisions, or decisions that don’t leave me feeling confused and adrift.

Like I said, I have no inclination to die young for any reason, let alone something as important to my well-being as the food I eat.

Faith in science comes with a concurrent skepticism and demand for proof – solid, understandable and defensible proof. I’ve seen too many ‘guides’ and ‘standards’ that ultimately proved to be essentially informational Ponzi schemes, made popular primarily by hype, or bought and paid for by some entrenched interest. In this day and age of diminishing faith and trust in key societal institutions – government, corporations and, yes, even academic institutions – I want information I can understand, information that I sense as being valid, complete and trustworthy.

The Tufts Food Compass may very well be all of that, and maybe even more. But they still have some ‘splaining to do, at least to me.

New England Farm Connects Soil to Health

Steve McMenamin is the manager of Versailles Farms, a Connecticut-based market-garden operation at the forefront of regenerative agriculture. Versailles Farms’ mission is to grow food for the community with an emphasis on nutrient density, flavor, and good digestion. 

Steve and his wife, Ingrid, started the farm in 2013 after selling Versailles Bistro, a local institution, taking it out of bankruptcy and earning a 4-star review by the New York Times in 2010.

Steve is also the executive director of the Greenwich Roundtable, a non-profit research and education group, and publisher of best practices that focus on long-term investing.

Steve learned almost everything he knows about agriculture from his grandfathers and YouTube.


China’s Plight with Food Independence

Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) want China to have food independence. But they can’t. Each day, China must feed 20% of the global population on a land mass slightly smaller than the U.S. As a result, China has become the largest agricultural importer in the world. Overall, they import 12% of the global food trade and only export 5%. They are consumers of 27% of the world’s meat, 45% of global soybeans, and 18% of global corn.

What is the CCP importing?

China relies on other countries to supply them with items such as beer, tree nuts, wine, fresh fruits, dairy, and meat.

And let’s not forget corn and soybeans to feed their own pork and poultry.

China’s population has peaked out at 1.4 billion people today, but even with an expected population decline, that’s still a lot of people. Yet those who live in rural areas are still moving to cities. As their diets become more sophisticated, it is projected by 2025 that each Chinese citizen will consume 20% more meat at 116 pounds from just 99 pounds per year today. (This is compared to the U.S. at 225 per person.)

More meat on China’s table means more hogs and chickens, and a three-fold increase in milk consumption means more dairy cows – all waiting to be fed with more soybeans and corn.

On top of that, Chinese consumers are increasing their use of soybean oil for cooking. Put the pieces together and the enormity of the challenge facing China becomes readily apparent: China’s hopes for food security rest substantially on the need for help outside its borders.

Aside from food security, Xi is having a tough time. Just to mention a few things…

  • Citizens all over China protested Covid lockdowns and encouraged Xi to resign. He discontinued restrictions, gave the Chinese their freedom, and it is anticipated that one-third of their population will end up with Covid and one million could die.
  • GDP has declined from supply chain issues, a drop in real estate prices, lower infrastructure spending, and reduced corporate profits due to weak domestic demand.
  • The world is watching and speculating about a possible invasion of Taiwan.
  • Companies are leaving China to produce their goods in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
  • Chinese espionage is rampant. 
  • …And finally, the crimes against humanity by the CCP toward the Uyghurs adds to the global dislike toward Xi and the CCP.

While we can’t read Xi’s mind, we can look at some of China’s decisions that give us insights into their strategy for food security.

The Five-Year Plan

Food security concerns were confirmed in March 2022 during the Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) presentation at the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Here, Xi stressed that eating matters most, and food is the most basic necessity of the people.

Their Five-Year Plan may sound reasonable – but in reality, it is fraught with insurmountable challenges.

Their strategic plan called for annual grain production such as corn, rice, and wheat of no less than 650 million metric tonnes and meat production of 89 million tonnes. Meeting the production goals of this lofty plan demands a 102% increase in domestic grains. They are achieving their meat goals at 88 million metric tons, but how will they produce the volume of grain-based animal feed necessary to maintain that production level for meat?

Over the last few years, China has increasingly relied on imports of agricultural goods to meet these demands. In fact, they bought $33 billion of ag imports from the U.S. in 2021 – a 33% increase from 2020 – making China its top purchaser.

And China’s dependence doesn’t stop there. Brazil continues to be its top ag supplier with 22% market share in 2021. The U.S. is close behind with 18%, followed by the European Union with $24.4B in ag imports.