Online claims that the U.S. government released new food nutrition ratings in the form of a graph that rates Lucky Charms cereal as healthier than steak are missing context.
Social media users are misrepresenting the role of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in a 2022 study that presented the Food Compass food rating system, a new “nutrient profiling system (NPS)” developed by researchers at Tufts University.
Although the project was partly funded by grants from the NHLBI, a disclaimer says that the funders had no other role in the research or the paper’s findings. Food Compass has not been endorsed or promoted by the NHLBI or the government departments responsible for developing nutrition guidelines.
One tweet with the claim (here) reads: “LMAO USA govt releases a food pyramind (sic) "study" saying lucky charms are healthier than -ground beef -cheddar cheese -eggs fried in butter.” It is also viewable on Facebook (here).
Posts include a bar graph that scores different foods as “to be encouraged” (green), “to be moderated” (yellow) and “to be minimized” (red), with items like ground beef and cheddar cheese being marked in red and Lucky Charms listed as to be consumed in moderation.
The graph in question was not created by Tufts University but does depict ratings based on the Food Compass. It comes from the graph appears in a paper, authored by a group of nutrition scientists, who outline limitations of the Food Compass system for profiling foods (here)
“While a conceptually impressive effort, we proposed 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 wrote in the paper.
In a Twitter thread, Ty Beal, an author of the paper, addressed the mix-up around the graph and other online claims made about the study (here).
He said it was not a “government funded recommendation chart produced by the authors of the study,” but it was made “using select values from the paper to show questionable ratings and raise concern about the approach.”
Following debate online about the graph, on Jan. 14 Beal tweeted what he described as a “fairer example” of how Food Compass scores food items (here).
TUFTS’ FOOD COMPASS
The Food Compass was developed by researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University (bit.ly/3ZSHEUC).
Using an algorithm, their system scores food items across nine different “domains” or categories, for example “vitamins,” “processing,” “food-based ingredients” and “nutrition ratios.” Based on this score, they are then placed in a spectrum of foods to be encouraged, to be consumed or to be minimized (here).
Both the Food Compass website (here ) and the research paper include a disclaimer that states the research was funded by dairy group Danone and two grants from the NHLBI.
“The funders had no role in study conception or design, analysis or interpretation of data, or presentation or publication of any findings,” the researchers wrote.
The Tufts team addressed claims about the graphic shared online in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its Food Compass website (here). The group states that they did not create the graphs and that while “Food Compass works very well,” sometimes there are exceptions, given thousands of products are being scored.
“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,” the statement added.
In response to a Reuters request for comment, the Food Compass paper’s lead author, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarianean, a professor of policy and nutrition at Tufts University, said in an email that one of the major strengths of Food Compass is “negative scoring for processed foods, and for refined grains and starches.” He added that Food Compass “is research in progress, and we continue to refine and update it.”
In a statement sent to Reuters, the NHLBI confirmed that the graph was not released by the National Institutes of Health or the NHLBI. “Although the Food Compass derived from a larger NHLBI-funded study, the content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health [or the NHLBI],” it said.
The U.S. government does issue dietary guidelines through a joint effort of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) (here).
These guidelines, updated every five years, are encompassed in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans viewable (www.dietaryguidelines.gov). The guide says that a “healthy dietary pattern” prioritizes “nutrient dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups” and recommends limiting items high in added sugars.
A USDA spokesperson said that the department “cannot comment on dietary patterns or guidelines outside of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Misleading. A graph showing the cereal Lucky Charms scoring higher than some animal products is based on data from a food health scoring system developed by Tufts University. While this research was partly funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, it does not reflect the government’s recommendations.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.