On Jan. 12, 2023, Good Ranchers published an article entitled, "New Government Funded 'Food Pyramid' Says Lucky Charms Are Healthier Than Steak." The article included a bar chart that showed Lucky Charms with a higher "healthfulness" score than ground beef. We attempted to verify whether that headline of that article was accurate.
We found, in short, that there is not, in fact, a new U.S. government-funded food pyramid chart that promotes to the general public the idea that the children's breakfast cereal Lucky Charms is healthier than steak. Despite how it was described, the chart was actually put together to demonstrate the shortcomings of systems used to rank the healthfulness of foods.
What happened was that a paper backed by nutrition scientists challenged the methodology behind something known as a nutrient profiling system (NPS) — in this case, an NPS called Food Compass. Food Compass is managed by Tufts University.
The paper was titled, "Limitations of the Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System." Nutrition scientist Ty Beal was listed as its corresponding author. We'll have more on his personal response to the Lucky Charms rumor later in this story, including an informative Twitter thread that some readers might find to be the most helpful part of this article.
First, we'll walk through examples of how this rumor spread on social media, show how some data at least in part contradicts the claim, and include a response from the Food Compass website. We also contacted the people and institutions mentioned in this story by email in order to find out more. Our messages were sent on the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., so answers may not be immediately forthcoming.
What Is Food Compass?
The official description for Food Compass on the Tufts University website defines it as follows:
Food Compass is a novel food rating system developed by researchers at Tufts University. By evaluating foods across 9 domains and using a unique algorithm to determine a score, we can assign a Food Compass Score (FCS) between 1 and 100 (with 100 being the most healthful) to nearly any food.
As for funding, the About page for Food Compass included the following information:
This research was supported by Danone (R.M.) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), National Institutes of Health (R01 HL130735 (R.M.), 2 R01 HL115189 (D.M.)). The funders had no role in study conception or design, analysis or interpretation of data, or presentation or publication of any findings.
Within the aforementioned paper, Beal and the other nutrition scientists who challenged Food Compass included an example chart that they had made. To be clear, this specific chart was not created by Food Compass, but did mix together the system's actual scores for 24 various types of food (out of many thousands of items in the data). This chart, which shows Lucky Charms with a higher "healthfulness" rating than ground beef, was the same one published by Good Ranchers.
The much-discussed chart. (Source: SocArXiv Papers)
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."
They also mentioned this above the chart, which was referred to as a "non-exhaustive list":
While there are many justified scores, the above-mentioned limitations of Food Compass result in numerous unjustified scores. For example, kale receives the same score as watermelon, despite the large difference in nutrient density and fiber between the two foods (Figure). Surprisingly, Frosted Mini Wheats, Honey Nut Cheerios, nonfat frozen yogurt, calcium-fortified orange juice, and chocolate-covered almonds all receive top scores (≥70, "to be encouraged"). In contrast, foods such as millet, whole wheat bread, skinless chicken breast, boiled eggs, and whole milk, are assigned lower scores (31–69, "to be moderated"), which are comparable to those of sweet potato fries, Lucky Charms, canned pineapple in sugar syrup, almond M&M's, and ice cream cones with nuts. Moreover, all of the aforementioned items score higher than ground beef, cheddar cheese, and whole eggs fried in butter (≤30, "to be minimized").
According to what we found in the raw data, "ground beef, raw" received a score of 38. Meanwhile, "cooked ground beef" showed the score of 26 which appeared in the chart. (The latter may have referred to processed ground beef only.)
We recommend readers visit the Data and Research pages of the Food Compass website, where they'll find charts that were officially created by the system's researchers.
Joe Rogan's Instagram Post
On Jan. 14, podcaster Joe Rogan posted on Instagram a screenshot of the Good Ranchers headline, saying that he saw it to be "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."
We also found the article and chart being promoted by the popular @wealth user on Instagram, an account that has previously published at least one satirical "news" item as if it was real. In @wealth's Instagram post, they added, "This new food pyramid is causing concern as it may impact the food children eat at school and public's views on nutrition." We'll have more about food in schools later in this story.
Good Ranchers' Story
We're now going to walk step-by-step through the beginning of the article from Good Ranchers. First, as we previously explained, the headline was at least somewhat misleading. There is no new "food pyramid" from the U.S. government that says Lucky Charms cereal is healthier than steak.
The article began as follows:
Buckle up. This one is a doozy. You probably missed it, but in September 2022, the White House hosted a conference that focused on nutrition, health, and hunger in America.
This is true. According to documentation that we found, this conference occurred on Sept. 28, 2022. The White House called it "a historic package of new actions that business, civic, academic, and philanthropic leaders will take to end hunger and to reduce diet-related disease."
The Good Ranchers article continued:
Dariush Mozaffarian, who was one of the main organizers of the event and is currently Dean of the Tufts School of Nutrition — presented a newly designed food pyramid that only cost 3 years of time and millions of taxpayer dollars. The new wisdom they found? Lucky Charms are healthier than steak.
It's true that Mozaffarian was part of the co-chaired task force for the event, and also is the dean for policy at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Further, yes, he gave a presentation. However, the chart put together by the nutrition scientists to challenge Food Compass did not appear in Mozaffarian's presentation, nor did he present any sort of a "newly-designed food pyramid" that showed "Lucky Charms are healthier than steak."
Mozaffarian's presentation video is available on YouTube. We looked through the entire clip. It has very few views and zero comments, and apparently had not been thoroughly watched by any of the website writers or social media users who promoted these rumors.
During the presentation, Mozaffarian presented a chart titled, "Dietary Priorities: Healthy Foods." However, this chart made no mention of Lucky Charms being healthier than ground beef or steak. In fact, "Unprocessed Red Meats" (e.g. steak) was placed higher on the chart than "Processed Grains, Starches, Sugars" (e.g. Lucky Charms).
This was the chart that was presented by Mozaffarian, which showed a date of 2016.
The chart and relevant segment appears at the 11:01 mark below. We recommend readers watch from 11:01 through 15:46 in order to gain a full understanding of what Mozaffarian actually said about the "heathfulness" of various varieties of food.
We looked through the entire video and performed a search of its captions, but found no specific mention of Lucky Charms.
There was also the claim about how all of this purportedly "cost 3 years of time and millions of taxpayer dollars," as reported by Good Ranchers. As previously mentioned, Tufts University's Food Compass did receive support from National Institutes of Health and others. However, we're still seeking answers to try to confirm timing and figures.
Food Compass and School Lunches
At the 37:56 mark in the above YouTube video, Mozaffarian was asked if the data that he had presented might be implemented in school lunches in the future.
In his answer, he did say that, "In the national strategy and part of our advocacy efforts will be two things." First, he said he wanted to ensure "more lower-income kids have free school meals." The second point was that he mentioned he wanted to "strengthen school nutrition standards." He did not specifically mention Food Compass.
Citing a source at the bottom of a slide, Mozaffarian showed data that said school lunches had already improved their overall healthfulness over the last several years thanks to outside efforts, while other food sources such as grocery stores and restaurants had remained stagnant. He also made the point that kids are only in schools an average of 180 days per year, saying that children only received nine percent of their yearly calories from school lunches.
Twitter Thread from Ty Beal
In the aftermath of the article from Good Ranchers, as well as the social media posts from Rogan and others, a thorough explanation was tweeted by Beal. (Again, Beal was listed as the corresponding author on the paper that challenged the methodology of Food Compass.)
In Beal's thread, he provided a number of answers that clarified various points, all of which we have included below.
Beal's thread closed by linking to the paper, which readers are invited to read in order to gain a better understanding of this story.
Food Compass Responds
On the FAQ page for the official Food Compass website, which was hosted by Tufts University, it included the following question and answer:
On social media, I have seen graphics showing certain breakfast cereals scoring higher than eggs, cheese, or meat. Did Tufts create these graphics?
No. Food Compass works very well, on average, across thousands of food and beverage products. But, when this number and diversity of products are scored, there are always some exceptions. These graphs were created by others to show these exceptions, rather than to show the overall performance of Food Compass and the many other foods for which Food Compass works well. But, as objective scientists, we accept constructive criticism and are using this to further improve Food Compass. We are working on an updated version now – see our versions page for more information.
One question in the FAQ asked about how Food Compass scores breakfast cereals and unprocessed meats, and included a line (bolded below) that mentioned the team behind the system was looking to find out if it could make improvements in this area:
How do Food Compass scores compare for breakfast cereals and breads vs. foods like eggs, cheeses, and unprocessed meats?
Because Food Compass is one of the only food rating systems to give negative points for refined carbohydrates and for food processing, breakfast cereals and breads that are rich in refined grains generally get low scores – lower than the scores for most eggs, cheeses, or unprocessed meats. We believe this is major advance, as starchy, processed cereals often receive high scores in other food rating systems. Food Compass also gives negative points for added sugars, as do most other systems.
Food Compass gives positive points for whole grains, fiber, and a lower carbohydrate-to-fiber ratio (a measure of the overall balance of refined grains and sugars vs. whole grains and bran). Whole grains and dietary fiber contain many nutrients, serve as prebiotics for the gut microbiome, and are linked to many positive health outcomes.* Breakfast cereals and breads that are rich in whole grains, fiber, and other nutrients and have no added sugar generally get high Food Compass scores, even when they're processed. Breakfast cereals and breads that are rich in whole grains, fiber, and other nutrients but also have some added sugar generally get intermediate Food Compass scores. Breakfast cereals and breads that are rich in refined grains, with or without added sugar, generally get low Food Compass scores. We are currently evaluating whether Food Compass can be further improved to better assess the overall healthfulness of these different foods.
The Food Compass system also includes negative processing points for artificial colorings, artificial flavorings, and corn syrup. But, data on these additives were not available in the USDA Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies (FNDDS), the dataset used for our research to-date. So, foods containing these additives should score lower than calculated in our current scoring summaries, and we hope to obtain and add such data in future work.
This story will be updated if any further developments come to light.