How Do Your Favorite Products Rate According to New 'Food Scores'?

An NGO alternative to stodgy nutrition labels provokes a big food backlash.

(Photo: The Photo Works/Getty Images)

Oct 28, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

What happens when you try to come up with a better way for American consumers to make sense of the groceries they're buying? Well, for starters, you get lambasted by the processed food industry.

That's the short story of the new Food Scores program from the Environmental Working Group, which debuted yesterday. No sooner had EWG issued its press release about its new Food Scores database than the Grocery Manufacturers Association fired off its own, calling the nonprofit’s ratings “severely flawed.”

This is only the latest skirmish in the back-and-forth over efforts to account for the healthfulness of packaged foods. Public health advocates and nutrition experts have long criticized the inadequacy of those congressionally mandated Nutrition Facts labels found on the packages of everything from soda to soup. Even as the Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of the achingly slow process of revamping the labels, critics are already saying the FDA will likely buckle under industry pressure and fail to go far enough.

Just this week in The New York Times, health columnist Jane Brody said as much, pointing out that among other things, the new labels probably won’t be any easier for hurried shoppers to decipher. You can bet that whatever the FDA comes up with, it won’t be nearly as straightforward (and thus, anathema to big food) as the easy-to-read, color-coded label Mark Bittman dreamed up a couple years ago.

We just might have to wait until the devil nails a triple lutz before we ever see anything that remotely resembles Bittman’s label on American food products. But Food Scores represents a major step in that direction, despite its not being a federal program. The database rates more than 80,000 products based on nutrition, concerns about ingredients (such as whether they’re likely to contain pesticide residue), and the degree of processing.

It’s ridiculously easy to use: You can search for specific products or by manufacturer, or you can browse entire categories (“Cereals and Breakfast Foods,” for example). Each product is given an overall score between 1 and 10, and scores for each of the three categories are rated somewhere between “low concern” and “high concern.” All of it employs the almost universally understood color-coding system that ranges from green to yellow to red, similar to Bittman’s labels.

Most important, these are real products that you can find in real stores, ranging from Kellogg’s Raisin Bran to Coke Zero to Whole Foods' avocado lime vinaigrette salad dressing. Better yet, when you click on a product, you get a comparison chart of how that product ranks against others in the same category. Want an alternative to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, with its middling overall rating of 5? There’s always Whole Foods' 365 Organic Everyday Value Macaroni & Cheese (rating: 3).

“Eat whole foods that are minimally processed.” That’s become the mantra among those who see that our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with processed foods is bankrupting us with its hidden social and environmental costs. But let’s face it: Even those of us who repeat this mantra ad nauseam sometimes resort to the inarguable convenience of, say, canned soup.

Among the many benefits of having worked at Gourmet before its sad demise was that I amassed a trove of treasured recipes—like this one for a creamless creamy squash soup. It’s amazing: delicious, yes, but every time I eat it, I also feel like I’m practically glowing with vitamin-rich good health. It’s not too hard to make either. But come a workaday lunch, there’s also no way that I’m going to spend a half hour peeling and dicing a bunch of vegetables. With Food Scores, I can now compare brands of store-bought squash soup. Campbell’s Homestyle scores a 6, with relatively high ingredient concerns but surprisingly low processing concerns; Trader Joe’s version scores a much better 3 overall.

Of course, you had to expect that any attempt not only to give consumers more comprehensible information about what they’re buying but to make an evaluative judgment about what’s in that food and how it’s produced was going to send the processed food industry into a conniption. Which is just what the GMA did in yesterday's press release.

“Not only will the EWG ratings provide consumers with inaccurate and misleading information,” the GMA says, “they will also falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices.”

That’s rich, considering big food has lobbied for years to either block the implementation of nutrition labels or, when that failed, to make those labels arguably as confusing as possible. What’s even more ironic is that in its press release, the GMA holds up those labels as one of the best “fact-based sources” in an “already crowded landscape of subjective food ratings systems.”

Among the GMA’s litany of issues with the EWG system is that the ratings for the degree to which a product is processed are based on the best guess of EWG’s experts. Well, duh. Does anyone think the big food giants were going to divulge exactly how they make their products to some advocacy organization? This is also something EWG freely acknowledges, allowing consumers to weigh their faith in the organization’s expertise and independence against the corporate self-interest inherent in big food’s multibillion-dollar marketing apparatus—the likes of which, for example, has Coke simultaneously packaging its Vitaminwater to look suspiciously like medicine while denying in court that it has ever tried to convince consumers that Vitaminwater is at all healthy.

For whatever wonky flaws the EWG Food Scores database might have, at the end of the day, it’s a welcome challenge to the kind of disingenuous lobbying for “consumer choice” that has been big food’s modus operandi for decades—and which has given us the sort of federally mandated nutrition labels that all too often require us to read between the lines.