Commentary

EWG Database Ranks 1,500 Food Brands; GMA Claims It's 'Severely Flawed'

Knowledge being power, a public relations battle immediately erupted over the veracity of Food Scores, a new searchable database released by the Environmental Working Group yesterday that ranks 80,000 foods from 1,500 brands not only for their nutritional value, but also for “ingredients of concern, such as food additives, and contaminants.”

“Each product falls somewhere on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the best possible score and 10 being the worst,” reports Mandy Oaklander in Time. “Only 18% of the products fell into what EWG called the ‘green zone,’ while 57% were in the yellow-to-orange range and 25% were at the very bottom.”

In a statement that went out over PR Newswire, the Grocery Manufacturers Association charged, among other contentions: “Not only will the EWG ratings provide consumers with inaccurate and misleading information, they will also falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices. Embedded in the ratings are EWG's extreme and scientifically unfounded views on everything from low-calorie sweeteners to the nutritional value of organic foods.”

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Nine bullet points spell out specific objections, from “all conventionally produced products [are] automatically penalized despite significant evidence that nutritional value of organic and conventional products are comparable” to the fact that EWG is guessing, as it admits, about the “degree of processing” each product undergoes.

Renée Sharp, the EWG’s director of research, tells the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom that its “methodology was presented in depth on the website so that consumers could understand exactly how the organization arrived at its conclusions.”

“We laid out all of our assumptions and decisions,” Sharp said. “We don’t think anyone is as transparent as we are about what we’re doing.”

The database, which was developed over three years, draws on information from LabelINSIGHT, academic research and government datasets.

The GMA suggested in its release that “the best advice for consumers seeking to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle is to follow the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include eating a variety of foods as recommended by ChooseMyPlate.gov combined with regular physical activity to create an overall healthy lifestyle.”

It also pointed out that the industry is also “highly regulated by experts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”  

ChooseMyPlate, as with earlier versions of the “Food Pyramid” issued by USDA, is itself controversial. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health issued their own “Healthy Eating Plate” in response to the most recent government-endorsed ChooseMyPlate in 2011.

“Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture Pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating,” Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, said at the time.

The government and Harvard advisements don’t drill down to specific foods or brands, however. And the new EWG database — which is available as an app for iPhones as well as online, includes more variables than, say existing apps such as Fooducate.

“The [Food Scores] database also has a unique, interactive function that allows users to customize each product’s Nutrition Facts panel by their age, gender, and life stage, including pregnancy,” according to the release. “Users can also limit their searches to find only certified organic, GMO-free, or gluten-free foods.”

“Things that get bad scores are breakfast cereal, frozen pizza and even some meats. More positive scores were given to foods higher in protein, fiber, omega-3s, and minimal processing — foods ‘closer to what you might find in your kitchen than what you might find in a chemical plant,’” said EWG’s president and co-founder Ken Cook, according to Foxnews.com. 

The EWG’s Sharp tells the NYT’s Strom that the biggest surprise she and Cook encountered was how many products contained sugar. “It is astounding,” Sharp said. “Almost 60% of the products in the database contain added sugars.”

“Meat, stuffing, sugary cereals, and granola bars all take a beating in EWG’s system, because of ingredients of concern or the amount of sugar,” points outBloomberg Businessweek’s Andrew Martin. “But even then, there are exceptions. For instance, a Sage Valley granola bar gets a 2 — it’s high in protein and fiber — but ShopRite’s version gets a 10 because it has more than 50 ingredients and is 13% sugar by weight.”

Take solace, processed food marketers. Even if less than one in five of your products is currently in Food Scores’ “green zone,” that judgment is not as harsh as Michael Pollen’s Rule No. 19 in his book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

“If it’s a plant, eat it,” Pollen writes. “If it was made in a plant, don’t.”

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