WHF? WTF?!? 3 reasons why the "World's Healthiest Foods" website cannot be trusted
So who thinks George Mateljan's "World's Healthiest Foods" is a great website? Well I confess that I always did myself, that is until I finally took a proper look at just how the site's creator arrived at the rankings presented, both of the 100 top foods and also more specifically in terms of the various nutrient ranking charts.
This article will present 3 separate reasons any of which alone would be sufficient to suggest we may all need to look elsewhere rather than at WHFoods.com if objective data about the worlds's healthiest foods is indeed what we are after.
The World's Healthiest Food website
1) The "Nutrient Density" Fallacy
The foundational keystone of all of what WHF presents is based on the notion of "nutrient density" and this is entirely fundamental to the rankings used throughout the website. The concept of nutrient density is an entirely arbitrary one, a ratio which basically takes the absolute amount of a nutrient provided in a given serving of whatever food (say a 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds) and then divides that value by how much calories are also supplied in that serving This means that foods which are highly nutrititious and relatively calorific also (to many people's thinking, the ultimate combination: sunflower seeds are a good example) are arbitrarily knocked right the way down on their overall nutritional ranking, simply and only because they provide "evil" energy rather well!
At the other end of the spectrum, foods that are actually only relatively average sources of a given nutrient by weight but crucially provide relatively little energy become "excellent" sources of the given nutrient. Therefore, for example, spices and herbs all feature very highly as excellent sources of all sorts according to WHF. (In reality, herbs and spices are mostly only truly excellent sources of lesser known nutrients needed in very tiny amounts, de facto: trace minerals and phytonutrients principally. If you're tyring to get your calcium from cinnamon, well, good luck with that as they say! You'll need to be eating it by the bowlful!).
Here's a few graphics showing 2 adjacent listings reworked from the site: the first is for Vitamin B6, the next for omega 3s. In both cases, the WHF site ranks the significantly inferior nutrient provider higher:
WHF favours chilis over sunflower seeds as a Vitamin B6 source in spite of providing less than a quarter as much
Soy beans provide approximately 10 times the amount of omega 3s as mustard seeds but which do WHF rate higher?
And here's a double whammy extracted from the WHF Vitamin E charts: 2 separate comparisons, the first between an "excellent" source and a merely "very good" one, followed by a different "very good" one against a plain old "good" source. Once again the WHF abitrary nutrient density magic represents reality upside down.
"So the last shall be first and the first last ..."
In fairness to the WHF website, no attempt is made to conceal the ranking system in use: it's right here: And the site does also use, so it tells us, a second metric by which it is possible for foods to make it into the 3 upper tiers of "excellent", "very good" or "good" based on absolute provision of over 75%, 50% and 25% respectively of the RDI of a given nutrient. In theory at least this should help salvage a few spectacular performers and occasionally it does so but in practice, the great majority of the stars in the WHF firmament owe their lofty position mainly due to their nutrient density (relative calorific paucity) score. Most suspect of all, as we shall see, are the many frank ommisions whereby the actual star performers that do provide 100% of more of the RDI and more just do not feature at all for no apparent reason (The ommissions are mostly if not exclusively animal foods.)
As we can see, with the WHF methodology, if a food is low enough in calories (celery), it's bound to appear to be an excellent source of some nutrient or other. (Celery is listed as a "very good" source of half a dozen nutrients for which it in fact supplies less than 10% of the RDI). Conversely, if a food is calorific enough, no matter how much of a particular nutrient in provides, it willl struggle to get a high ranking if indeed any at all in the WHF charts. (Duck for example does not feature as being a good source of any nutrient even though it trumps over a dozen foods that are listed as good sources of selenium, and over three dozen listed as good sources of niacin and every single one of the 43 foods listed as good sources of iron! In the case of niacin, parsley gets listed as a "good" source of niacin for providing 0.4mg per 1/2 cup whereas a mere 4oz. of duck provides 45 times as much niacin at 18mg or 90% of the RDI but it's nowhere to be seen on the whole site.)
No duck anywhere on WHF ... (pic: 7reasons.org)
Anomalies abound throughout the WHF site, too ubiquitous to be worth bothering noting but here's a few more hilarious quickies I couldn't resist: we're told that cinnamon is a "very good" source of calcium and actually much better than cow's milk, which is merely "good" in spite of the fact that the actual numbers presented show the cinnamon serving (2 teapoons) providing only 52mg as against the 138mg provided by the modest 4oz serving of milk ... WTF WHF? Next: the site has ground mustard seeds down as an excellent source of selenium because 2 whole teaspoons full provide 15% of the RDI for selenium or 8mcg while the standout source of selenium, brazil nuts (with a single nut providing typically 50mcg or as much as around 7 teaspoons full of mustard seed powder) doesn't even get any place anywhere on WHF's league table for good selenium sources for whatever reason. Calorific density presumably? Similarly: turmeric and parsley are both "excellent" sources of iron even though neither the 2 teaspoonsfuls of the spice nor the 1/2 cup of the herb studied match the amont of iron provided in 4oz of beef, labelled merely a "good" iron source. As alluded to above, duck doesn't even make the charts at all even though a 4oz serving provides more iron than every single one of the over 40 foods that do make the iron charts including the chart topper itself (spinach)!
It is difficult to overstate the impact that this highly strange nutrient density ranking has on all the detailed work presented on the WHF website. The problem is simply immense. Typical real life servings become irrelevant in favour of this entirely arbitrary metric. Who exactly is going to eat a cup or more of spices per day in order to get their nutrients in?
If one takes the time to investigate WHF's rankings and corrects for this insane nutrient density business and instead just focuses on what is likely to be eaten, a very great deal of things change, frequently dramatically. Foods that were "good" become "very good" or "excellent" sources for the given nutrients. Foods that were "excellent" fall right ouf to the charts all together etc.
In general, the WHF ranking system heavily "demotes" calorific foods such that most animal foods, nuts and seeds are seriously undervalued whilst just about all vegetables are inappropriatley exalted, appearing far more nutritious than they actually are, merely because they are relatively low in calories.
2) Inexplicable Ommisions
We have already alluded to the problem of significant glaring ommisions above. On looking further, it turns out that Mateljan has not just overlooked duck but seems rather to have cooked the books entirely by ranking only the meats he pre-determines as the sanctioned "world's healthiest foods meats" whilst ignoring others that are both commonplace and are in fact, the world's healthiest meat foods. The most glaring ommisions of all in this respect concern all forms of offal, and most especially liver. What is the reason for this one wonders? A 4oz serving of lambs liver would not just top the charts for several nutrients but in fact beat the WHF best by several hundred percent in many cases.
For example, a 100g serving of lamb's liver would beat the leading sources of Vitamin A as per WHF, both animal and plant, several fold. Similarly, where Mateljan gives pole position to sardines as the leading vitamin B12 source (coming in at approximately a full day's recommended requirement per ounce), why does he not include liver which provides over 3 full day's worth of B12 per ounce or 12 days worth per 100g serving? Finally, WHF awards top marks in the riboflavin or B2 charts to a cup of spinach which provides 0.4mg when in fact 4ozs of liver would provide 10 times this quantity at an unbeatable 4mg.
Other ommissions on the site are potentially excusable due to sporadic nutrient performance (pork gets no mention in any form for example) whilst the absence of other truly stellar nutrient providers may be justified due to being relatively uncommon (eels, caviar, heart, sweetbreads etc.). However, it becomes much less easy to explain why WHF, which features for example turnip greens and mustard greens so heavily entirely disregards lamb kidney and liver, both much more common real nutritional superfoods.
3) Suspect Servings
And it doesn't end there. There is still another potentially major issue with how the WHF ranking works which compounds the confused picture it provides. The aforementioned undervaluing of meats, fish, nuts and seeds based on relative calorific density is further exacerbated by an additional issue namely that WHF uses common if still highly suspect serving sizes that again, further understate the nutrition provided in both animal foods and nuts (typical meat and fish servings taken as just 4oz. with nuts at just 1/4 cup only). In contrast, apparently the typical serving of all greens is always a full cup. While it is true that 4oz servings of animal protein are still the norm in many widely used nutritional data sets, the reality, rightly or wrongly, is that such servings are really quite atypical in the affluent developed world except perhaps for young children and some of the elderly. Most adult portions of roast meats, stews or fried meats tend to weigh in nearer to 8oz than 4 and often way above that again. (My own youngest child wouldn't be content with any less than an 6-8oz. serving of meat and fortunately her Dad's OK with that). Is there a restaurant anywhere in the world that serves 4oz steaks?
Picture for a moment the typical "meat and 2 veg" dinner eaten in most of our homes most evenings. It is arguable but highly likely that the WHF baseline servings represent, on the average, an overestimate of the quantity of greens typically being eaten (a full cup of each green veg) and simultaneously an underestimate of the amount of meat being consummed, at a mere 4 ounces. If it turned out that many of us are eating perhaps even 25% more meat or fish (just 5 ounces) and/or perhaps 25% less greens as WHF assumes (down to a mere 3/4 of a cup), then the benefits of veggie eating as per the WHF tables have been very seriously and systematically exaggerated vis-a-vis meat and fish consumption in yet another way.
These twin issues with the ranking system, the nutrient density fallacy and suspect servings are together so significant coupled with the inexplicable "meat omissions" issue as to make one wonder if some kind of hidden veggie political agenda might lurk someplace about in the Mateljan camp. Idle speculation perhaps but the whole WHF view of the world is so off beam that the unlikely starts to seem at least possible. In any case what is clear is that the mutually compounding errors and omissions suffice to make the whole site worse than useless for its avowed purpose of rating the relative healthfulness of foods.
So there you have it. One wonders what part the enormously popular WHF site may have been playing all these years in the gradual rise of vegetarian and vegan eating? If one disregards the insane ranking system and considers some of the truly healthy animal foods Mateljan ignores, it starts to look like the Paleoniks might really be onto something after all....
Sources: nutritiondata.self.com ; WHfoods.com