Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”

By Garland West January 31, 2023 | 5 MIN READ


Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”


By Garland West January 31, 2023 | 5 MIN READ

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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.

, Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”

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.

, Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”

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.

, Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”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.

, Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”

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.

, Tufts’ Befuddling “Food Compass”

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.