What's in Your Food? New Tool from Environmental Working Group Has the Answer

Food labels and packages are so confusing it’s hard to know for sure what’s healthy and what isn’t, and that’s no accident. The food industry spends billions of dollars marketing sugary foods as “healthy” and creating packaging that makes their highly processed products look and sound nutritious.Groups like the Consumers Union are working to educate consumers about the meaning of some of the most common claims on food packages. Their research shows that even though the word “natural” is essentially meaningless, consumers continue to look for it. Keeping an eye out for misleading claims is important, but nutrition labels are so complicated you can read them line for line and still not really know for sure what you’re eating.

For example, before Vani Hari, creator of FoodBabe.com, published an article about it earlier this year, few people realized they have probably eaten the chemical foaming agent azodicarbonamide, (nicknamed ADA ) used by the plastics industry in yoga mats, flip flops and foam insulation. The chemical, used as a “dough conditioner” in many commercial baked goods, makes raw dough more malleable and breads and other foods puffier and more durable for shipping and storing. Up until now ADA has flown below the radar because the concentration approved by the FDA for use in food – 45 parts per million- it is not known to be toxic to people. However, the fact of the matter is that ADA is industrial chemical, and doesn’t belong in our baked goods.

According to Food Scores: Rate Your Plate™ a new online tool from Environmental Working Group, ADA turns up in nearly 500 items and in more than 130 brands of bread, stuffing and snacks, including many labeled and advertised as “healthy.”  Food Scores is a simple searchable website designed to empower consumers to make incremental lifestyle changes that will improve their health, protect the environment and put pressure on food manufacturers to improve the quality of their products.

Food Scores has detailed information on tens of thousands of everyday products. Every item on the site has an easy to understand score based on three factors: nutritional value, level of hazardous ingredients and degree of processing. It helps you navigate and understand these confusing issues so that you can make healthier shopping choices and find alternatives to common foods that may contain harmful additives.

Food Scores was developed with information gathered by a company called FoodEssentials that compiles data on the ingredients in foods sold in US grocery stores. EWG also uploaded data from their research on pesticide residues, harmful food additives and toxins like BPA and mercury. This first of its kind online tool was developed in partnership with GRACE Communications Foundation, the Brin Wojcicki Foundation and EWG’s online community and partners. It draws on the expertise and experience EWG developed creating online databases like the Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics  and Guide to Healthy Cleaning, both of which have had a large impact on policy debates and consumer awareness on issues ranging from tap water contaminants to the damage done to public land through oil, gas and uranium mining.

Excited to put your favorite foods to the test? So are we! Food Scores: Rate Your Plate launches October 27 at the James Beard Food Conference.