Environmental Working Group's "Food Scores"

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) who brought us the “dirty dozen” list of foods that have the most pesticides have recently launched a new “Food Scores” database.  You can type in your favourite foods and see how they rankfrom 1-10.  1 being the most healthy, ie kale, and 10 being the least, such as Cheetos.

The EWG uses three factors or algorithms to rank foods on their scale.  They emphasize more on nutrition, less on processing:

  • Nutrition – calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, sodium, protein, fibre and fruit, vegetable and nut content.

  • Ingredient concerns – presence of key contaminants, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, and the health implications of certain food additives.

  • Processing – an estimate of the level of food processing

What is also helpful, is that after inputting your food item in question, if you click on the numbered scale on the left hand side, they offer healthier options that fit your search.  So we can actually find better options rather than just being shamed about what we have been eating.

So I thought I would start plugging in a few of my favourite foods.  I started with Triscuits, which I love!  Those ranked at a 5.0.  I thought that was reasonable for a packaged food.  Other whole wheat crackers I had in the cupboard were Breton wholewheat crackers.  These came up with a score of 9!

Interestingly, looking at their food labels (I happened to have both in my cupboard) for 4 crackers, they have similar numbers.  Doing a cursory check in the grocery store, they are appeared to be a reasonable addition to my usual favourite.  The Breton crackers only have 10 more calories, 40 more mg of sodium and 1 less gram of fibre then the Triscuits.  But I think what’s really telling is the ingredients list.  Triscuits have only 3 ingredients, while the poor Bretons have 14 and a couple of them are dodgy.

Then I started exploring around the fruits and vegetables on the list.  I inputted the usual suspects like broccoli and carrots and the organic versions got a value of 1.  But then I put in the controversial potato.  Interestingly, a frozen packaged product: Dr. Praeger's Sensible Foods Frozen Spinach Potato Pancake got a value of 1.8, while just standard Green Giant Fresh, Idaho Potatoes got a value of 2.8.  I realize that the EWG is putting more emphasis on nutritional value rather than processing, however, it seems weird to me to have a frozen food product rank better than the fresh, straight out of the ground one.

Overall, this was definitely a fascinating exercise to try on foods that you buy repeatedly.  Synthesizing the information from a food label for a portion size that is so small – 4 crackers is not likely the amount one would eat at a sitting – makes it really difficult to see which is the better product.  How bad is 1 less gram of fibre really?  Comparing the two crackers really did highlight how you have to look at the whole picture to be able to see which is the better product.  But I still feel that a food product that is fresh and straight out of the ground, that does not have a Nutrition Facts Label, is always better than a processed food that does.

Health Canada is working on changing food labels to have the product portion size reflect what an actual portion size would be.  Having the nutrition label show how many calories are in ½ a bottle of juice is not appropriate, when everyone is drinking the whole thing.  A separate list item for “added sugars” has also been proposed.  This will take much time to get industry to make these changes, so certainly tools like EWG’s Food Scale will definitely help us in the meantime.  Check the EWG's website for their Food Scores, but also all sorts of other reports such as Healthy Eating on a Budget, their Good Seafood Guide, and A Shopper's Guide to Avoiding GE Foods.