retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) said yesterday that it has launched "Food Scores: Rate Your Plate," described as "an easy-to-use food database and mobile app that will house ratings and a vast array of other information for more than 80,000 foods from about 1,500 brands in a simple, searchable, online format." EWG said that the tool "is the most comprehensive food-rating database available to consumers," and said that its scoring system "factors in not only nutrition, but also ingredients of concern, such as food additives, and contaminants. It also estimates the degree to which foods have been processed."

The aim, EWG said, is "to guide people to greener, healthier, and cleaner food choices. Users can find an overall score, from 1 (best) to 10 (worst), for every product in the food database. EWG’s product profiles include highly detailed information on how each food stacks up in terms of nutritional content and whether they contain questionable additives, such as nitrites or potassium bromate, or harmful contaminants, such as arsenic and mercury, and which foods have the lowest and highest processing concerns. They also identify meat and dairy products that are likely produced with antibiotics and hormones and highlight the fruits and vegetables that are likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues."

One highlight of the new database: "Nearly 60 percent of the foods in EWG’s database contain at least one form of added sugar, and in some food categories added sugar is shockingly pervasive. For example, EWG found that 92 percent of granola and trail mix bars in the database contain added sugars. In some cases, almost a third of the bar’s weight is sugar.

"Other food categories with surprisingly high percentages of added sugar include stuffing mixes (100 percent), stuffing (96 percent), deli meats (74-98 percent, depending on type), salad dressings (86 percent), peanut and other nut butters (68 percent), and crackers (63 percent)."

The New York Times reports this morning that "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."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) was not amused by the development, and released a statement that said, in part:

“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 methodology employed by EWG to develop their new food ratings is void of the scientific rigor and objectivity that should be devoted to any effort to provide consumers with reliable nutrition and food safety information.  Their ratings are based almost entirely on assumptions they made about the amount, value and safety of ingredients in the products they rate.  Adding insult to injury, EWG conducted no tests to confirm the validity of any of their assumptions.
“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.
KC's View:
The larger lesson here, it seems to me, that the food industry has to get used to the idea that it no longer is in control of the information stream … and, in fact, there are other organizations that may be seen as having greater credibility that establishment sources.

Sure, EWG has a bias. But so does GMA.

Seems to me that this is the best possible argument for transparency … that if you are totally up front and candid about your products' ingredients and formulation, and make your case for why you make a product a specific way, then at least you can't be accused of obfuscation.

Saying that EWG's ratings are illegitimate won't make them so … this is the new reality. Deal with it.