Environmental Working Group debuts nutritional database

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2014 - The Environmental Working Group has released an online database with entries on more than 80,000 foods that it hopes will help consumers make healthier choices at the grocery store, but critics maintain will only add to the confusion about "good" versus "bad" foods, setting up price-conscious consumers for even more difficult choices.

The database - Food Scores: Rate Your Plate - took three years to compile, and EWG says it is “the most comprehensive food-rating database available to consumers.” The database scores products - separate from any unbiased, government source - on three criteria which it has compiled: nutrition, ingredients, and processing.

Lets Talk Food

Ken Cook, EWG president and cofounder, said the database profiles the use of 5,000 food ingredients from 1,500 brands in 80,000 different foods. Cook said the undertaking was ambitious.

“This is a very large database project, even by Environmental Working Group Standards,” Cook said, pointing to other EWG databases on topics such as farm subsidies and personal care products. “But this one stands out.” EWG has been widely known for trying to influence the farm bill debate by aggregating decades of farm subsidies for individual farming operations.

In the database, food products are given an EWG score based on weighted ratings for nutrition, ingredients and processing concerns. It also includes the traditional nutrition and ingredient information that would be displayed on the product's packaging.

The database is entirely searchable, enabling a user looking for anything from the healthiest potato chip to any foods containing added sugars, which Cook said is about 58 percent of food. An iPhone app was also unveiled enabling shoppers to scan a product's bar code and gain the same information accessible from the website. The app also gives shoppers the ability to find a comparable food product with a better score.

Rather than simply listing the ingredients and nutrition information, EWG wanted to describe how the ingredients affect human health.

“Our goal was to go beyond just nutrition - which is what most food databases and apps really focus on - and look at a much wider range of factors that we know that consumers care about,” said Renee Sharp, EWG's director of research.

The database's search mechanism also allows users to apply sorting options to find products that are certified organic, GMO-free, or gluten-free, in keeping with the organization's preference for organic foods. Cook also said that although EWG receives financial assistance from several organic food companies, none of those companies provided financing for this project. 

However, it appears that the scoring may be skewed toward organic products, without providing clear-cut analysis about why some organic products are necessarily better than other types of foods that could be much more affordable. For example, 10.7 ounces of Organic Native Forest mandarin oranges scored 1.1 on EWG's scale, while a 16-ounce selection of Shop Right Fruit singles of mandarins and oranges scored 1.8. Both items are about the same nutritionally, but EWG noted that the more affordable Shop Right variety "contains the following ingredient (s) that may be genetically engineered or derived from GE crops: Sugars" and received a higher, less favorable score. That's despite the fact that foods from genetically engineered plants must meet the same food safety requirements as traditionally bred plants.

 

Cook said he is hopeful this database will enable consumers to make smarter decisions in the grocery aisle as well as make food companies more mindful of the power of consumer opinion.

 

“We think people will shop smarter, and we think we're going to ring some bells in the food industry that it's time for them to pay closer attention to the ingredients they put in food, because consumers now have a new tool to know exactly what it is food companies are putting in those products,” Cook said.

 

This article was updated at 11 pm.

 

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