Tufts University’s ‘Food Compass’ rates ice cream more nutritious than a bagel

People Magazine ran a story with the clickbaity title “Ice Cream Is Better for You Than a Multigrain Bagel, New Study Suggests.” Of course I opened it and am running a story with essentially that same title, so it worked. I don’t know if it’s a study so much as an analysis of the nutrient quality of popular snack food. It also might be promotion for a service Tufts is offering, which I’ll discuss more in a minute. First here’s People Magazine’s writeup.

A new study from Tufts University in Massachusetts suggests that ice cream is a healthier choice than a multigrain bagel and other foods like saltine crackers.

In the research, experts at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts developed a “Food Compass” to rank any type of food from 1 to 100 based on nutrition; the higher the number, the healthier the food.

When comparing foods, the study gave an ice cream cone with nuts and chocolate ice cream a 37, while a multigrain bagel with raisins received a 19 and saltine crackers a 7.

While chocolate-covered almonds and sweet-potato chips might not be surprising healthy choices, other options that ranked high are plain Fritos chips, which were given a 55, and whole grain frozen french toast, which was scored at 35. Nonfat cappuccino was ranked at 69.

“Once you get beyond ‘eat your veggies, avoid soda,’ the public is pretty confused about how to identify healthier choices in the grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s lead and corresponding author, dean for policy of the Friedman School. “Consumers, policy makers, and even industry are looking for simple tools to guide everyone toward healthier choices.”

[From People]

They go on to say that the healthiest meat is seafood, unsurprisingly, followed by chicken then beef and that fruits and vegetables scored highest. The article author claims that this food scoring algorithm is “publicly available,” but the website for Food Compass at Tufts, is just a promotional blurb with the ending sentence “Interested in learning more about how your organization could benefit from a partnership with Food Compass? Email us at foodcompassinquiries@tufts.edu.” This seems like a press release for an app add-on, essentially. I’m not saying they’re wrong, just that this sounds like a program they’re trying to license. I read the press release and the article abstract and Tufts claims to have the “most comprehensive and science-based [nutrient profiling system] to date.” I don’t really understand all of it but it’s based on different food attributes and health outcomes.

My friend uses an app called Yuka to help him chose more healthy snacks. The company states that they don’t accept any sponsorships and that all their food recommendations are honest and based on nutritional value. You enter food you’re eating and it gives it a point value. It’s pointed him toward nut-based chips and other substitutions. As someone who counts calories and just tries to eat more vegetables, I’m skeptical of food ranking systems, especially when they claim that ice cream is healthier than a bagel. Maybe the ice cream is a serving of a specific brand. I know that bagels are empty carbs for the most part. It’s hard to tell with these sensational stories that don’t give access to the full scientific article for context. Plus you know people are going to read the headline and go “screw it, I’m eating ice cream, it’s healthier than crackers,” not that some of us need an excuse to eat our favorite dessert.

photos credit: Mieke Campbell, Amy Vann, Jiroe Matia Rengel and Tuva Mathilde Loland on Unsplash

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58 Responses to “Tufts University’s ‘Food Compass’ rates ice cream more nutritious than a bagel”

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  1. Danbury says:

    I’ll pretty much choose ice cream over everything, so I’m ok with this !

    • Julia K says:

      With a side of sweet potato chips.

    • Jan90067 says:

      For me, a couple of bites of ice cream is enough; it’s so rich more would make me queasy.

      Give me a good, scooped out, toasted bagel any day! I scoop out the insides pretty well, and put either some avocado, or maybe a sliced hard boiled egg with a spoon of homemade guac & salsa… mmmmm… yummy!

      • @ Jan90067, that sounds deliciously yummy!!! I wish I wasn’t allergic to avocados 🙁 but the salsa would be perfect!! Though I do love ice cream, I try to stick with sorbet. My myriad of medications make my mouth extremely dry so I opt for sorbet, but I wouldn’t turn down some mint chocolate chip ice cream 😋

        Though I am careful in my diet, I do eat fruits everyday as well a small serving of raw nuts. But you will never take my dark chocolate peanut butter cups unless I am dead and my body is cold….

      • Julia K says:

        What? Dark chocolate peanut butter cups? Only milk chocolate here. Is this new? Love dark chocolate.

      • BeanieBean says:

        @Julia K: Justin’s makes a great dark chocolate peanut butter cup!

  2. Bettyrose says:

    Didn’t Ben & Jerry both die of heart disease? I’m not disputing that ice cream is a gift from the heavens but it’s packed with refined sugar and animal fat. 🧐 That said, refined flour bagels are pretty bad, so it’s not setting the bar very high.

    • Lightpurple says:

      Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are both still very much alive.

      • Bettyrose says:

        Ha! I just Googled that and there’s an entire Reddit thread of the Mandela Effect of believing they’re both dead. But also search results confirming major health problems. So a little bit of truth to it.

    • mia girl says:

      Bettyrose – I think both Ben & Jerry are still alive.

      I prefer Jeni’s ice cream myself. Goat cheese ice cream & roasted red cherries is my favorite Jeni’s flavor. I’d never consider it good for my health, but it is very good in my tummy!

      • North of Boston says:

        Plus I’m sure there are plenty of Ben and Jerry’s peers who ate bagels who are no longer with us. As well as others who favored ice cream. I doubt it’s any one snack food preference that’s the nail in the coffin so to speak, but much more the cumulative effect of all lifestyle (diet, exercise, risky behavior, sleep, work environment) choices plus genetics plus what life throws at you, luck,

        With bagels and ice cream alone the details are probably the deciding factors: how often you have them, portion size, flavor options and toppings etc. and also how your particular constitution processes them.

    • JJS says:

      Maybe you’re thinking of one of the founders of Baskin Robbins who died at 54 of a heart attack?

  3. NCWoman says:

    Well, it depends on the ice cream. If your ice cream has a lot of candy add-ins, then it probably wouldn’t be healthier than a bagel. But a one flavor ice cream? Sure. Milk and cream generally retain more nutrients than white flour does, and the fat slows the impact of the sugar in your blood stream. Bagels are a straight hit to your blood sugar.

    • BeanieBean says:

      And I noticed the study mentioned ‘chocolate with nuts’, so the nuts up the protein content even more, which of course makes it more nutritious than a carb-laden bagel. On the other hand, if I were eating prior to a run, I’d want that bagel, not the ice cream.

  4. Emmi says:

    No. I can’t with this This is AT BEST misleading. I’m just guessing here but if they only looked at the nutrients, then MAYBE there is a point to be made. But there are so many factors here .. I cannot.

    If I eat a bagel with avocado or veggie spread and some tomato and cucumber on top for breakfast, I’m full until lunch. Nobody eats a plain bagel! If I eat ice cream, I’m hungry at 10 a.m. And also would feel sick but that’s another issue.

    And the public isn’t confused. We’ve been gaslighted for decades by the food industry and trends. Fruits are a healthy snack. Plain nuts are a healthy snack. Saltines can be a healthy snack if you have them with some hummus and veggies. This is not new or confusing, people just need to be taught the truth and have access to fresh, unprocessed food. I’m not in the mood for this today. Half the Western world is overweight and fighting heart disease and diabetes but yeah, let’s go with this message.

    ETA: Now I want ice cream. *sigh*

    • Chlo says:

      Came here to say that a bagel with cream cheese is going to keep me full for way longer than an ice cream cone with chocolate sauce. I agree with your entire comment – context is totally missing, and this just adds on to the heaps of misinformation we’ve been sold by special interests. (Which I type as I’m eating a breakfast pastry hahahahha)

    • Jessamine says:

      Completely agree context is everything. I think the issue is that there is no “one size fits all” points system approach for all of human food consumption. Various approaches work for various people. Read nutritional info, have a basic understanding of what your body needs to function, and then either adapt your food choices, be at peace with them (sometimes I need that ice cream, I prefer my hummus on tortilla chips over veggie sticks 😋) and live your life.

      • og bella says:

        Absolutely! My husband, for years and years, has eaten a plain turkey sandwich on multigrain bread with lettuce at least 3 or 4 days a week. Healthy, yes! But for HIM? a nightmare. We couldn’t understand why his gout was in overdrive when he ate so healthy.

        We only found out recently that turkey is super high in uric acid and the “healthier” (for him) he ate, the worse it got.

        And, I swear it’s one of the things most wrong in the world today, most people lack comprehension of nuance. Yes, ice cream may have more nutrients than a plain bagel, but like you all have pointed out, it’s not just how many nutrients by everything: complex carb & proteins mix, toppings, individual health status, etc..,

    • Jo says:

      I disagree with the barometer of keeping full though. You can eat three bags of chips and have a sense of being full (whole grain of the bagel will do that) but it’s not good for you.
      It really is very basic: animal and polyunsaturated fats, especially heated, sugar, are bad for you (in this case saltines are pretty bad, with a lot of sodium to make them even worse). And most processed foods have a lot of additives that not amazing.
      Non processed foods are good. Processed foods have a ranking, of course, based on the quantity of said bad stuff.

    • Betsy says:

      Many, many people eat plain bagels.

    • C says:

      I think the public is very much confused because of the food industry problems you mentioned. For decades at least in the US, diet culture promoted strange combinations or highly processed foods – the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet, black coffee and crackers spread with mustard for lunch- “natural” food is a relatively recent movement and was demonized by the sugar and flour lobbies for a reason in the 1960’s. People have rotated between being told fat is the issue and margarine is better, no, wait, it’s the other way around, sugar is bad and aspartame is good, eating after 8 is a diet no-no, eggs are unhealthy because of cholesterol, fruit has carbs. It’s a mess.
      I try to eat food without additives and don’t sweat it when I can’t. I try to eat produce because it is very good for you. Lean protein as well, like chicken and eggs. I do like my turkey-sausage egg and cheese breakfast biscuits like anyone but I eschew the hash browns when I do. Balance is key.

      • Sienna says:

        Absolutely @c “balance is key”!
        My hubby and one of my kids have huge food sensitivities so we all try to eat only whole foods: meat, fruits and veg (no dairy) and things I make from scratch.
        When we decide to have something manufactured, they know it will play havoc with their digestion and they decide if it’s worth it, and have just a little. I have more leeway but only have small amounts too because it is all SO sweet if you’re not used to it.

  5. Jais says:

    Have been really into Fritos lately which scored in the middle so a win, I guess?

  6. Pix says:

    My dr. told me to go low carb and it was a beast because I could not give up ice cream. I was miserable. I finally found these low calorie/carbs ice creams (NIck’s and Rebel) and I eat them every damn night. I seriously drive across town to the cheaper grocery store and stock up. Don’t get me wrong, I love a freshly baked bagel, but giving that up was easy. Life was just so unenjoyable, even depressing, without ice cream!

    • Chloë says:

      hahah i get that. Ice cream is the best!

      Can I ask you a question tho? Where are you from? The reason I ask is because on the internet I often see people say that their doctor recommended a certain dietary change and it always confuses me. I live in the Netherland and here doctors get no education on lifestyle beyond “no cigarettes, alcohol and sugar!”. So if a Dutch doctor would tell me to do something food wise I would straight up distrust him from that moment on (unless they can show me they got the extra education that is needed, which hardly any of them do). A lot of them still think they know whats what tho, which is why i’m wondering if that is also the case in other countries or do other med schools provide extra classes on lifestyle health? I’m not judging your doctor’s judgement tho! (let that be clear haha)

      • Pix says:

        I’m in the US. Doctor’s look at BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc and make recommendations to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. I wasn’t shocked. I gained some weight due to the stress and isolation of covid.

    • The Recluse says:

      It sucks being lactose intolerant. I’m getting by on frozen custard instead.

  7. SarahLee says:

    I’m guessing it is the nutrients in the foods. Not really much in a regular old bagel. They tend to be high in calories, high in sodium, and high in carbs (with not much fiber). Ice cream would typically be lower in calories and have at least some protein in there. Ice cream for the win!

    • Lizzie Bathory says:

      Yep. And ice cream has fat, which will keep me going longer than empty carbs. Plus the ice cream in the article had nuts & was tested against “a multigrain bagel with raisins.” Blech! Give me an everything bagel (or the ice cream) or give me death!

  8. Jessamine says:

    Sensationalized, reductive headline aside … this makes basic sense. A bagel is A LOT of material. People don’t realize how dense/hefty those things are. It is not equivalent to a piece of toast. And that bulk is basically straight refined carbs. The “multi grain” adds some fiber, maybe a little protein, but not much, and it’s going to hit your system like it’s made of sugar.

    Ice cream has sugar, obviously, but also protein and calcium from the dairy and the fat helps slow digestion and increase the feeling of fullness.

    A little discouraging that people are relying on outside point systems instead of checking nutritional information and making the best choices based on their own circumstances.

  9. SamC says:

    Maybe I missed it, but I’d also be curious as to who funded the initial study or, if the lead researcher also holds an endowed chair, who/what company underwrote the endowment.

  10. TigerMcQueen says:

    Neither is very good for you. Both are processed. Both are ranked medium on the glycemic index.

    Ice cream has more fat than bagels, but also more potassium and less salt and slightly less carbs per serving. Bagels are often loaded with salt and are are high in carbs (usually from white flour); they have more fiber than ice cream, but its fiber content is not great. From a pure nutrient standpoint, they’re pretty even.

    But there’s a wider variety of unprocessed things things you can put on a bagel than there is for ice cream. So a bagel with veg and avocado can be a better option, but the bagel still isn’t very good for you, its the unprocessed things that are…put those toppings on a couple of whole grain pieces of toast, then it’s healthy.

    • Beenie says:

      Exactly this. Neither are nutritious when compared to millions of other foods out there. Ice cream will have more fat and protein and sugar, a bagel will have very little nutritional value other than carbohydrates.

      It’s actually not that complicated if you just stop and look at the labels. However…. I think we all know that’s not the only thing being used by most people when they make statements of “what’s good vs what’s bad”.

      While there is ignorance over how to read a label and what our bodies need, I think even more significant is the *emotional* response people have to being told “something is good/bad”. People get very defensive, or feel guilty, or get angry, or feel depressed because something they like isn’t good after all! And this leads to more ignorance or misinformation, because now instead of arguing over facts we are arguing about our feelings.

      The heart of the matter is this: sugar and carbohydrates and ice cream and bagels are not good or bad. They are inanimate objects. They aren’t behaving in any particular way, and there is no reason to feel so strongly about any of it. I’m not saying don’t like food!! Of course you should, its freaking delicious. But there is no reason for us to give things emotional labels and then start arguing about it.

      But on the same token, from a nutritional standpoint (for anyone who cares) it’s true that both are not nutrient dense and contain a high level of sugar or refined carbohydrates. Added sugar is not necessary for our bodies and when consumed in large quantities (large = the standard Western diet) can cause numerous health complications. Flour has nearly all of the nutrients removed during the refinement process. In fact, this is why you see “enriched bread” at the grocery store! They’ve had to add back in vitamins and minerals lost during the processing. Flour is also processed almost exactly like refined sugar when we consume it.

  11. Bettyrose says:

    Shout out to the diabetics on this thread wondering why Tufts is trying to kill them. Can we a agree that why ice cream and bagels are both awesome in moderation, refined carbs are death. I’m no health guru but I share my life with a diabetic and I saw him pre and post giving up refined carbs. Mygawd. He dropped 50 pounds and his thinning hair grew back. That shit is killing us.

    • Jessamine says:

      Yes to all of this. Any tasty thing in moderation, refined carbs are the worst.

      Side note, my old boss was diabetic and constantly scheduled breakfast meetings at a diner where he always made a BFD out of requesting sugar-free syrup for his double order of pancakes, used Splenda in his coffee and lived off of little Debbie snack cakes the rest of the day. Never could figure out why he was always in crisis since he “gave up sugar just like his doctor told him”

    • Lizzie Bathory says:

      Yes. Mr. Bathory & I went low carb years ago. We lost a combined 200 lbs, he reversed his “pre-diabetes” diagnosis without medication & we cleared up a bunch of other nagging health issues. And the funny thing is we eat more veggies now than we ever did before.

    • North of Boston says:

      I don’t think it’s doing that.
      It’s a variation of Eat This Not That.

      Tufts doesn’t seem to be trying to argue either of those are more healthy that steamed broccoli and roasted chicken or some other traditional “healthy” meal choice More of a look at the actual nutritional value if you’re choosing, even with treats like ice cream or a bagel (which both while delicious if made well, are not super nutrient dense for the calories but ice cream gets the edge (I suppose due to milk and cream with protein and calcium and maybe the fat slowing somewhat the digestion of sugar lessening BG spikes in those who tend to get them). And how each person’s body processes either of those depends on the person- a good friend with diabetes would 100% steer clear of bagels or Fritos because they wreak havoc with her BS, but does enjoy ice cream in moderation because she can eat a serving (sans caramel and other sugar bomb toppings) without huge spikes. But most days it’s protein and veg, with limited fruit, limited beans

      The # rankings are a gimmick, a come on to whatever they’re selling

      • bettyrose says:

        @North of Boston – I know Tufts isn’t really doing that, but the headline has made its rounds online today, and people publishing those headlines know perfectly well what percentage of readers won’t look further than the shock value. (And per my experience described, I have a real chip on my shoulder about refined sugars. I still eat them, but now I do so with the full knowledge of what they’re doing to my body; just sharing the wealth).

  12. C says:

    I don’t understand these types of studies and don’t follow them. I’m just going to have my kale salad and side of tater tots, lol.

    • Lemon says:

      This is the healthiest response!

      Not into rating food. The best diet is one that suits your nutritional needs, and that you enjoy! A bagel or ice cream isn’t going to matter much nutritionally if you’re eating a balanced diet with enough fiber, fat and protein.

      Eat your kale and tater tots. I’ll eat my nuts, fruit, olives, vegetables and Fritos.

    • Dara says:

      My favorite brunch order is oatmeal with a side order of bacon.

  13. Duchess of Corolla says:

    Western civilization is so screwed up regarding diet. My daughter is a recovering anorexic, so we see a dietitian regularly. She explained to us that food is food. The trick is balance. There are no “bad” foods, rather there are bad habits and extreme diets. One example is the idea that all carbs are bad and must be avoided. That is the trap that my daughter fell into and which nearly killed her. She eliminated nearly all carbs because the thought they were “unhealthy.” What was truly unhealthy was her weight, which was approximately what she weighed when she was 9. She hit her most dangerous low last summer when she was 17. She ended up spending 2.5 months in hospital care.

    People need to stop obsessing about the merits of this food versus that. Follow hunger cues. Eat at reasonable intervals. Eat what you like, just not too much or too little of any category. We are making this way harder than it needs to be, and people are getting very, very sick as a result.

    • AnneL says:

      I’m sorry to hear your daughter and family went through that and are still contending with it. I agree that we need a sensible, moderate and educated approach to food and not to become fixated on certain foods being forbidden or “magic” etc. Wishing you all good health and healing.

      As for the ice cream v. bagel thing, I get it because ice cream has protein and calcium. Even a whole-grain bagel, in and of itself, doesn’t have much to recommend it it terms of nutrition. But as others have said, you’re still better off eating a whole grain bagel with smoked salmon, sliced tomato and a dab of cream cheese for breakfast than you are a bowl of cookie dough ice cream.

      The Fritos thing surprised me. Really?! What’s in there that’s good for you? It’s a lot of corn and a ton of sodium. I’m going to have to check the ingredient list on a bag of Fritos next time I’m at the store.

      • C says:


      • BeanieBean says:

        And grease, Fritos have a lot of fat in them. I remember overhearing a dietician telling a patient that an easy way to determine if they should or should not eat something was to put it on a paper napkin. Does it leave a grease stain? Then don’t eat it.

    • Lemon says:

      Yup. Sorry about your daughter. I have a niece with ED and am shocked at how common it is. We’re not modeling constructive and healthy eating behavior by obsessing over food choices. Food is substantive, nutritious, but also cultural, social and emotional. When a culture normalizes compulsive evaluation of nutrition and food shaming it’s no wonder so many of our young end up with disorders.

      100% everything you said.

    • Beenie says:

      Agreed. You said this better than I did. I hope your daughter is feeling much better now.

    • I am so sorry @ Duchess of Corella, that your daughter became so unhealthy. Anorexia is a dangerous disease that requires a great deal of changing the wiring in the brain as girls/women are trying to achieve the “perfect” body. For some, it’s a life long battle. My thoughts go out to, your family and especially your daughter. Thankfully your daughter survived and she is getting the necessary help that she needs.

      I blame the trends of the photos we see pictures of celebrities and models. Many women/girls don’t realize the extent at which publishers have severely photoshopped women to the point of them looking like aliens. It creates an unrealistic expectation placed on vulnerable women and girls when they don’t see the blatant lies. Until we start celebrating women in their natural form, in addition to eliminating the myth, we will all be obsessed with why we don’t look like those we see on a daily basis.

  14. Sasha says:

    Fat has been demonised for way too long. I was diagnosed with pregnancy diabetes and had to switch to a high fat low carb diet. My weight has never been more stable! Fat gives you a strong feeling of satiety that I just don’t think carbs do. I can eat a whole burger and fries and still have room for more. If I eat an avocado and drink a glass of whole milk I am FULL.

    • @ Sasha, we also must eliminate that all fat is bad too! Fat that we find in olive oil or raw nuts are not bad. But fat from processed food is bad. There needs to be more education as to the good vs the bad fat.

  15. Blithe says:

    Sigh. Many years ago, I went from slightly overweight to obese — after saving up enough money to meet with a nutritionist, who told me to force myself to eat breakfast, and to add more carbs “like bagels” . I went from eating what, today, would be viewed as a reasonably healthy diet (where portion sizes could have been tweaked) to forcing myself to eat bagels, bread, and pasta. I ended up obese, and I think that has had a permanent impact on my body, and my struggles to maintain a healthy weight.
    I think a reasonable serving of plain-ish ice cream IS better for me than a bagel. It’s also kind of criminal that both options cost a lot less and are fare easier to find than a punnet of nice ripe peaches — which I would prefer, by far.

  16. Breezy says:

    Too bad so many are still obsessed with ranking foods and looking for apps that tell us what to eat based on points and calories. If you read this article and wondered if you shouldn’t be eating so many carbs, I’m here to tell you: eat the damn bagel.

  17. JJ McClay says:

    This “compass” is really bad. An Instagram account I follow keeps posting examples from it. One example of how bad it is: it rates frosted mini wheats as “healthier” than chicken breast, eggs, whole wheat bread, and ground beef.

    I mean….

  18. kgeo says:

    There was a response by other researchers that showed this food compass can’t be used as it is. One example is that Lucky charms are rated as having higher nutritional value than beef. What is funny is that someone I know took an image from the response article and started badmouthing the authors of the response for ‘their research showing lucky charms are more nutritional than beef’ not realizing that it was a criticism of the Tufts study . I had to go find both original articles. Basically, don’t start scarfing down only ice cream.