What a nutrition facts panel says about a product may not tell its whole story.
The Environmental Working Group recently launched Food Scores, a database available for consumers to “make healthier, greener food choices,” according to its website. The non-profit, non-partisan organization works to improve environmental health and keep people healthier.
The Food Scores system rates food on a scale of one (best) to 10 (worst), considering nutrition, ingredient concerns, and processing. An app is also available.
The Food Scores debut was met with controversy. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association put out a statement saying the service could be confusing to consumers.
"The addition of EWG’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 association said in the statement.
It added, "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."
Food Dive caught up with Janet E. Collins, the immediate past president of the Institute of Food Technologists and senior manager in corporate regulatory affairs for the DuPont Company, for her thoughts on Food Scores, nutrition guidelines, and food labeling. Here are the highlights of the discussion:
Food Dive: What do you think are the most important things that interest groups should be doing when creating nutrition fact services like Food Scores?
Collins: Having an appropriate range of foods, having the categories correct, and from a nutritional perspective, when you’re looking at nutrition combined with processing and ingredients for example, being sure that the weight that you’re putting on each of those is really appropriate to the message that you’re trying to give.
Food Dive: What do you think are some of the major things that Food Scores gets right and wrong?
Collins: It is a general score about nutrition, how much sugar, how much salt, how much protein or fat and fiber I guess is pretty much what they’re looking at. That’s interesting, but rating a food on only that doesn’t take into account some of the other nutrients it might have...What they get right is it is 80,000 foods which is pretty fantastic. It’s very thorough. There are parts of it that are very well-documented - confusing algorithm as to how they got to the scores. They try to explain it but it is difficult to understand. It’s unclear what is the intent of the food score. What am I as a consumer supposed to do with the food score? Talking about having a database full of this stuff without putting it into context for whoever’s using makes it difficult to use and interpret.
Food Dive: The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association recommends that consumers follow the federal government guidelines instead of looking at Food Scores. How do these guidelines differ?
Collins: The guidelines are based on diets, so it’s not individual foods. So for example, if I decide tonight I am going to have chocolate cake and a glass of milk for dinner and I looked up those, it wouldn’t give me any context in my diet into which to place those choices...The dietary guidelines for Americans which come out from USDA and HHS – Health and Human Services – those departments together looking at food systems and dietary patterns is the way that nutritionists typically look at the food that we consume. They talk about over the day or over the week or over the month, choose from these kinds of foods in order to be adequately ‘nourished,’ appropriate minerals, vitamins, whatever. What the Food Score gives you is the Twinkie that you just picked up gets a score of 2, but it doesn’t put that into a context if you eat the Twinkie with this diet you get a score for your diet that’s different from one if you eat it with this other diet. The context is not clear.
Food Dive: In your opinion, what’s the biggest problem with food labeling today, and how do you think these problems can be combated?
Collins: Consumers don’t understand what they’re looking at. USDA has worked with FDA for a long time...the changes in the nutrition facts panel have been about increasing consumer understanding. And there’s still a belief that consumers don’t understand it as well as they might [think]. For example, if you look at fiber, you see fiber, a number of grams that is per serving. So let’s say you are having a cup of cereal, there are X number of grams of fiber in this cup of whatever this cereal is and then they give you a daily value percentage. So, a cup of this fiber cereal gives you 10% of your daily value for fiber. The problem with that is that again is very specific to the food, and it’s not in context.
Food Dive: Anything else you’d like to add?
Collins: What I’d like to add is that it’s really important that consumers are given information that’s useful to them. If this is the way to do it, if we find that [Food Scores] gives them what they need, what I would say is it’s a really good opportunity for food scientists and nutritionists to work with the Environmental Working Group, to be sure that the information that's being provided is relevant, to help them with what are appropriate food categories or food comparisons. Probably time will tell – it’s a huge database and it takes a lot of time to go through it. I’ve spent hours, hours, hours looking through it, and I think that there’s some very useful information there. How it’s used it’s hard to know.