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What’s in Your Pantry? Environmental Group Launches Online Nutrition Resource

With its new food database, the Environmental Working Group hopes to make it easier for consumers to understand how processed their food actually is. The online resource received some good reviews—but not from food manufacturers.

Just how processed is that Hot Pocket you just bought? And would you be better off with something else?

For decades it’s been hard to answer those questions because of the complexity of ingredient lists and the lack of clarity over where the ingredients come from. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy nonprofit that’s been focused on food safety in recent years, says it has a solution.

EWG’s new food-processing database, a clearinghouse of data on more than 80,000 foods commonly found in supermarkets, offers consumers a simple 1-10 score based on an item’s preservative list, whether it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), its nutritional values, whether pesticides were used to produce it, and how much the food has been processed. The lower the score, the healthier the food, EWG says.

As it turns out, not all Hot Pockets are created equal, with some varieties scoring a 5 on the scale and others landing at a 10.

“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,” EWG’s director of research, Renée Sharp, told The New York Times.

And just because a product is certified organic doesn’t mean it gets a pass. Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups, for example, are marketed as a healthier alternative to Reese’s version. But due in part to its moderate level of processing, it scored a 7 out of 10. (By comparison, the Reese’s variety got a 10 out of 10, setting off alarm bells over its high levels of sugar and saturated fat, among other negatives.)

While the tool got some positive notices upon its launch on Monday, that sentiment wasn’t universal. In a statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association claimed that EWG’s methodology was “void of the scientific rigor and objectivity” necessary for useful nutrition information.

“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,” the association said. “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.”

The database currently works only on the web, but EWG officials told the Times that it will soon launch a mobile app that works by scanning bar codes so users can check scores in the grocery store.

(EWG screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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