An environmental research organization on Monday introduced one of the most comprehensive online databases of food products, containing information on more than 80,000 items sold in groceries across the nation. It offers details of ingredients and nutritional information as well as an attempt to assess how processed the food items are.
“We know that consumers care a lot about what’s in the foods they buy, and we also know that if foods are highly processed, that can have an impact on nutrition in ways that don’t always show up on the information panels on labels,” said Renée Sharp, the director of research at the Environmental Working Group, the nonprofit group that built the new service.
The Food Scores database, compiled largely from information supplied by food companies through voluntary and mandatory labeling, combined with the group’s own research on pesticides and additives, allows consumers to find information like how many products contain brominated vegetable oil as an ingredient or whether a specific product contains added dyes and preservatives.
The Environmental Working Group aims to assign a score from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best, to each product based on how nutritious it is, how many ingredients in it or its packaging raise concerns and an estimate of how processed it is. Factors include whether a product is organically certified; raised according to various animal welfare standards or without antibiotics; and exposed to environmental contaminants and pesticides.
“You can see if a product is gluten-free, whether it potentially contains genetically modified ingredients, how it stacks up against its competition,” Ms. Sharp said. “The database is only of branded and packaged products, so bagged spinach but not spinach sold loose.”
Because of mobile technology and social media, consumers are becoming much more aware of not only what is in the foods they eat but also of questions and concerns about them. That attention has been forcing food manufacturers to reformulate products as varied as Gatorade and Kraft macaroni and cheese.
“Ingredients that are added to food purely for the convenience of industrial food makers are under scrutiny, not by regulatory agencies but by the public,” said Ken Cook, president and a founder of the environmental group.
Mr. Cook said he anticipated resistance from the food industry, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents the industry’s interests, was highly critical of the new tool, saying it was based on little more than “guesses.”
“The Environmental Working Group’s food ratings are severely flawed and will only provide consumers with misinformation about the food and beverage products they trust and enjoy,” the association said in a statement.
It said the scoring system was “void of scientific rigor and objectivity” and thus would give consumers inaccurate and misleading information.
“The addition of E.W.G.’s rating scheme to the already crowded landscape of subjective food rating systems underscores the importance of fact-based sources like the government-regulated Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredient list as consumers’ best source for consistent, reliable information about food and beverage products,” the trade group said.
Ms. Sharp said her group’s 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,” she said. “We don’t think anyone is as transparent as we are about what we’re doing.”
She and Mr. Cook said the biggest surprise was how many products contained sugar. “It is astounding,” Ms. Sharp said. “Almost 60 percent of the products in the database contain added sugars.”
More than 90 percent of granola bars, for instance, have added sugars, as do 100 percent of stuffing mixes. Perhaps even more surprising, processed meats like bologna and salami contain added sugar.
Analysis of food products aimed at educating consumers about what they’re buying is increasingly common. Whole Foods, for instance, recently began rating some of the produce it sells as good, better or best based on a variety of criteria, and the Cornucopia Institute will soon introduce a yogurt scorecard, ranking a wide variety of yogurts based on whether, say, they use high-fructose corn syrup or carrageenans, among other things.
The yogurt analysis, which took more than a year, follows work the organization has done to rate organic eggs and organic milk, among other products and ingredients. “Yogurt is perceived and marketed as a healthy product, and its popularity has really taken off because of that perception,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of Cornucopia. “But there are a lot of synthetic chemicals in many yogurts, and as much added sugar as some candy bars.”
Cornucopia’s yogurt scorecard will award “spoons” to more than 100 yogurts, with five spoons being the best rating. Yogurts that are organic score more highly, as organic foods generally do in the environmental group’s Food Scores, in part because organic producers are required to follow regulations that reduce their use of pesticides, additives and other processing agents.
Dannon and Yoplait, best-selling yogurts, get only one spoon. Michael Neuwirth, a spokesman for Dannon, noted that it made many different yogurts, including plain, unsweetened yogurt in traditional and Greek varieties as well as “nonnutritive sweetened yogurt.”
“To help people achieve a healthy diet in the way they define it for themselves, we make a huge range of nutrient dense varieties of yogurt to fulfill different needs and preferences,” Mr. Neuwirth wrote in an email.
General Mills, which distributes Yoplait in the United States, said: “Cornucopia advocates on behalf of organic, and routinely recommends organic products over alternatives. That has been their focus – and it’s clearly the agenda here.”
Food Scores, which will soon be available as an app that consumers can use with their phones to scan product bar codes, was inspired by the Environmental Working Group’s success with a similar database for cosmetics and skin care, Skin Deep. That effort spurred some cosmetics makers to change their products, and Mr. Cook is hopeful that the food database will have a similar influence.
“A cosmetics executive said the nicest thing any ‘frenemy’ has ever said to me,” Mr. Cook said. “He told me that before Skin Deep, women thought they were putting on makeup and now they think they’re putting on chemicals. I think Food Scores is going to have some of the same impact.”
Source: The New York Times