NIH-Funded "Food Pyramid" Rates Lucky Charms Healthier Than Steak
40% of Americans are obese, 71.6% of adults over 20 are overweight, and for the first time in decades, life expectancy is falling due to chronic illness. wtf is going on?
A couple months back, at a small gathering of ops and tech leads hosted by Founders Fund, I met Justin Mares, the founder of True Medicine and Kettle & Fire. Over dinner, our conversation turned to diet, and to my delighted horror I learned the tale of Tufts’ insane new food recommendations. Immediately, I knew I had to share it with the Pirate Nation.
Justin has made a career of nutrition, and built a national brand from his passion for health. Today, he guests with a story that cuts across many important cultural faults — the American obesity epidemic, the academic obsession with reducing meat consumption, the intersection of corporate interests and the government. This story is weird as hell, and yet perfectly unsurprising in the clown world. Bon appétit.
A few weeks ago the White House hosted a conference on hunger, nutrition and health. One of the key organizers of the conference — Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts School of Nutrition — had just finished spending 3 years and millions of dollars designing a new food pyramid. His findings? Lucky Charms are healthier than steak.
Americans have a massive obesity and disease problem. Are we really not understanding why?
According to the Tufts Food Compass — which they tout as “the most comprehensive and science-based nutrient profiling system to date” — Lucky Charms are healthier than whole milk, more than twice as healthy as beef, and better for you than a baked potato or cooked green peas.
See how your favorite foods rank (100 is the top score, 1 the worst) below.
Yes, you’re reading this right. A major university really did spend three years and millions of dollars of NIH funding to tell us Frosted Mini Wheats and Honey Nut Cheerios are health foods. As the excellent Nina Teicholz says on her Substack:
The Food Compass, which gives top ratings to Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs, is absurd on the face of it. In all, nearly 70 brand-named cereals from General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Post are ranked twice as high as eggs cooked in butter or a piece of plain, whole-wheat toast. Egg whites cooked in vegetable oils are also apparently more healthy than a whole, boiled egg, and nearly all foods are healthier than ground beef.
There are absurdities galore in the Food Compass’ scoring of various foods. How about chocolate covered almonds (78 score) handily beating ground beef (26)? Lucky Charms (60) over a whole egg fried in butter (29)? Or poor pita bread receiving a 1, while wheat-based branded cereals like Cheerios (95), Frosted Mini Wheats (87), and Raisin Bran (72) receive scores that put them firmly in the “to be encouraged” camp? Our friend Dariush must have gotten a real bad case of pita poisoning to bring down the hammer so hard on poor pita.
Why does this matter? After all, anyone can just ignore Tufts’ findings, because they’re obviously crazy. But in the field of public health this is precisely the kind of work that matters. Studies like this are what lead to the last half century’s famously misguided dietary guidelines, which have coincided with the sickest Americans our nation has ever seen.
On the ground floor, school boards across the country look to research of this kind to inform what’s allowed in school lunches. The same school lunches empirically linked to higher rates of obesity for kids. An incredible shock, I’m sure, to anyone paying attention to the happenings of Congress, where pizza was declared a vegetable. It’s the tomato sauce that does it, apparently (a fruit, of course, but at this point who even cares?).
And while most Americans have long since given up on the idea that our nation’s chronically incapable school boards might achieve results that actually help children, we still expect a little more from our doctors. These people went to medical school, after all. But in a country where 80% of medical schools have zero required nutrition training or teaching, the Lucky Charms health guidelines cooked up at places like Tufts become the source material overworked, nutritionally uninformed doctors and nurses fall back on when they make recommendations to their sick patients.
And boy are there are a lot of patients. Americans today are sicker, fatter, and less fertile than any generation of Americans before us. 40% of Americans are obese, 71.6% of adults over 20 are overweight, and 88% of Americans are metabolically unhealthy. And for the first time in decades, life expectancy is falling due to chronic illness.
This explosion in chronic illness has also led to an explosion in healthcare costs. At present, healthcare spend approaches $2.2 trillion (almost 20% of total GDP). Chronic diseases drive almost 75% of this cost: diseases that are almost entirely mediated by a poor food environment, poor food policy, and misguided health and nutrition guidelines.
Or, “misguided.” Because you may be wondering — and you’d be right to find this bit confusing — how a top tier university comes to the shocking conclusion that sugary cereals are more nutritious than red meat, one of the most nutritionally-dense foods on the planet. Why, it’s almost as if these studies are funded by people selling sugary cereal!
Let’s talk about Big Food and Agriculture.
In 1963, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) paid Harvard researchers the equivalent of $50k to refute sugar’s role in heart disease, and researchers happily produced the results they were hired to produce. Instead of blaming sugar, Harvard and the SRF blamed cholesterol and saturated fat. Today, after 60 years of fat-is-bad food policy, Americans have never been in worse health, with no shortage of studies vindicating fat — including saturated fat.
Big Food continues their funding tricks to this to this day. One classic trick is to deflect blame: surely, Big Food says, we aren’t seeing historic rates of illness and obesity due to our highly processed food-like products! The nation just doesn’t exercise!
It’s a phenomenal piece of propaganda, because it’s only partially untrue; exercise is important. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a healthy diet consisting of daily sugar-water consumption, no matter how many walks around the block you take. It should therefore come as no surprise Coca-Cola has spent millions creating and funding the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), which invented and promoted the idea of “energy balance.” Eat whatever you want — just hop on that bike after and you’re fine!
In addition to starting questionable marketing organizations, Coca-Cola started funding “research” several decades ago. According to Food Fix, from 2008 to 2016 the company funded 389 articles in 169 journals concluding physical activity was more important than diet, and soft drinks and sugar are essentially harmless. In total, Coke provided more than $120 million to US universities, health organizations, and research institutions between 2010 and 2015. The company is not alone.
Big Food played similar tricks to muddy the waters on trans fats for decades, likely killing a million-plus Americans in the process (as I wrote about here). “Research” is essential to the strategy. The food industry spends more than $11 billion a year funding nutrition studies — dwarfing the NIH, which spends only $1 billion — polluting and diluting independent research, and confusing policy makers, the public, and even most doctors and nutritionists.
You heard that right: for every dollar the NIH spends on nutrition research, trying to understand why and how we are getting sicker and fatter every year, the food industry spends $11. On “research.” From respected universities. Which appears in respected journals.
One might reasonably ask, why does Big Food do this? Why spend so much money funding biased nutrition research and sway policy away from whole foods towards Lucky Charms and the like?
The answer is pretty simple: money. A 2016 USDA report showed that 5% of SNAP (a nutrition-assistance program for low-income people) funds — or $3.5b in 2016 — are spent on soft drinks (here’s an easy-to-read summary by NYT). Which means it's conceivable that revenue from taxpayer-funded SNAP made up close to 20% Coke’s annual US revenue that year.
Yes: in a government program specifically engineered to help lower-income people improve their nutrition, sugary drinks are one of the largest line-items in SNAP, accounting for almost 10% of the “food” purchased by the program. Legally, you can’t purchase a hot meal or rotisserie chicken using SNAP benefits because they’re not healthy enough. But sprinkle in a bit of lobbying and voila! $7b a year goes to soda.
Similarly, 87% of schools serve brand-name Big Food items (McDonald’s, Snickers, etc) in their cafeterias. 80% of schools have contracts with soda companies. The reason monstrosities like the Food Compass get funded, the reason Big Food funds bad research, is all the same. The government funded piggy bank — across SNAP, school lunches, prison lunches, hospitals, etc. — is just too big to ignore. And if they can shift even small amount of federal spending away from lower-margin whole foods and towards higher-margin, highly-processed Frankenfoods like Lucky Charms, all the better for their bottom lines, and all the worse for the American public.
Ultimately, initiatives like the Food Compass would be laughable if they didn’t make their way into food policy. Recently, we’ve seen NYC announce the switch to “plant-based” foods in hospitals as a default (along with meatless Monday and vegan Fridays in NYC schools). When talking plant-based, they make sure to focus heavily on fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts, as they say on their site:
Plant-based nutrition is a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes, but is not necessarily limited to, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, plant oils, and herbs and spices, and reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.
Lovely. Here is a picture of the “fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts” in question:
That’s what you can look forward to in NYC hospitals when you get the now-default vegan option (we wish you a speedy recovery!). And if you’re a child unfortunate enough to be stuck in a NYC public school for lunch, you too get a helping of processed food, with almost no protein. I’m sure that won’t negatively impact your growth, development, and focus at all.
Frauds like the Food Compass and the plant-based push in hospitals and schools are just thinly disguised ploys by Big Food to push more of their high-margin, processed products on the American consumer. Health consequences be damned.
Sorry, American consumer. You are well and truly fucked. But at least it will taste good.
Editor's note: the original version of this article said that in 2016, taxpayer-funded SNAP made up nearly 20% of Coke's annual US revenue, which, while conceivable, is not a certainty. Reports published in 2016 indicate these facts: SNAP 2016 expenditures were $70.8b, and 5% of SNAP funds — or just under $3.5b — are spent on soft drinks. Coke's US revenue in 2016 was $19.9b. If even half of SNAP’s soft drink spending went to Coke that year, 8.7% of the company's revenue would have come from SNAP funds. If 100% of the soft drink spend went to Coke in 2016, its SNAP revenue would have been north of 17% of total U.S. revenue. We’ve updated the piece to reflect this.
Justin Mares is the founder of True Medicine and writes a monthly newsletter on health and entrepreneurship at The Next. You can find him on Twitter @jwmares. For more reading on the insanity that is the Tufts Food Compass, see full rankings here.