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How To Eat Healthy: Lessons From The EWG’s Food Scores

photo by Texas A&M AgriLife via Flickr 

With 80,000 different products in its database, The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Food Scores” catalogue is the largest aggregation of our foods’ nutritional information to date–and it’s poised to make healthy shopping a piece of cake (or preferably fruit).

Concern over the makeup of our food is seemingly greater than ever. With the rise of hot button issues like GMOs, hormone treated meat, and other potentially toxic food additives, it’s no wonder consumers are in a frenzy.

Fervor over food, however, isn’t the only thing in abundance. Fortunately for those looking to weed out undesirables in their diets, information surrounding our food products is also readily available like never before.

The EWG in particular is taking full advantage of the mountains of data about our food by aggregating nutritional information gleaned from mandatory labeling into not only an online database, but an app that consumers can use on the fly.

Below are a few categorized findings that we gathered from the EWG’s comprehensive database that can help you make your next shopping trip a lot healthier with only a little work.

THE FOOD

Using the four major food groups as our guideline, we aggregated information from the EWG into our own analysis.

Using a simple metric which evaluates nutrition, ingredients, and the amount of processing, food scores are ranked from 1 being the best to 10 being the worst.

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Image courtesy of from EWG website

So which food groups should we look out for?

Rice, Grains, Pasta, Bread products

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As expected, in this category the majority of the worst items are packaged goods such as Ramen, Pillsbury frozen dough, and processed baked goods like Swiss Rolls. Due to high levels of sodium, added sugar, and processing concerns, such items scored very low on the food score spectrum.

Luckily for carb-lovers, the vast majority of food items listed in this category fall between the upper and mid health range of 1-7–with 45 percent being in the top 1-3 rating.

Overall, there’s nothing too astonishing in this food group–that is, unless you didn’t know bagel dogs existed.

Total products reviewed: 6,761

Products between 1-3: 3,073

Products between 4-7: 3,372

Products between 8-10: 316

Dairy

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The dairy category holds a few noteworthy, though not completely shocking findings which include:

  • 2663 cheeses scored a 7 for possible antibiotics and hormones
  • The vast majority of creamers scored a 10
  • 75 percent (1,960) of frozen yogurts and ice creams score between 8-10
  • Despite concern over antibiotics, milk scored surprisingly high, with most listings falling between the 4-5 score range

Total products reviewed: 10,873

Products between 1-3: 268

Products between 4-7: 7,732

Products between 8-10: 2,873

Meat

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Meat was by far the lowest rated food group in our analysis–and with American households consuming about 230 pounds of beef, poultry, and pork per year, this category may be one of the most impactful on consumer health.

EWG’s meat category’s worst offenders consists of the usual suspects like spam, sausage, deli meats, and bacon.

Despite scrutiny of chicken and beef being quite strict, the EWG’s list indicates, pork products are also of major concern–especially when considering the controversial Smithfield Foods is responsible for much of the pork production in the U.S.

Products with a score of 10 (of which there are 1,125 or 33 percent of the total) were riddled with nitrates, antibiotics, and hormones, and subsequently earned their place in the lowest of the low on EWG’s food score spectrum.

Total products reviewed: 3,375

Products between 1-3: 81

Products between 4-7: 780

Products between 8-10: 2,514

Fresh Fruits and vegetables

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Fresh fruits and vegetables scored about as high as one might expect. With no targets in the 10 category, food item scores were overwhelmingly positive, boasting 599 items (78 percent) with a score of 1.

Total products reviewed: 762

Products between 1-3: 676

Products between 4-7: 82

Products between the scores 8-10: 4

The takeaway

In addition to their mounds of surfable data, EWG also offers analysis of their own that might surprise even the most health-savvy consumers.

Some Aha’s! from the EWG analysis include:

The average food in the database has 14 ingredients

According to the EWG, the average food in their database has 14 ingredients. These ingredients can range from preservatives, added flavors, colors, and textures, and a laundry list of other questionable chemicals.

Why is erythorbate in your bacon, anyway?

The average food in the database has a 58 percent chance of containing added sugar

Sugar is added to a significant majority of EWGs 80,000 reviewed items. Added sugar makes its most obvious appearance in items like baked goods and sugary drinks but has also slipped more discreetly into products like stuffing mixes and deli meats.

According to the EWG database, foodstuffs like stuffing, deli meats, and salad dressings have a 96, 74, and 86 percent rate of added sugar respectively. As we’ve covered previously, this sugar can have a myriad of negative health consequences.

52 percent of meat products contained an ingredient of high concern

Meat products, as depicted in the graph above, are some of the most unhealthy food items in the entire database. In addition to 52 percent containing an ingredient of higher concern, a whopping 1,125 of 3,375 meat products, or 33 percent, of the items listed received a score of 10.

What’s it all about?

While the EWG’s findings are a tad concerning, there are still thousands of healthy options in the database and even more that haven’t been reviewed.

Those set on cutting unhealthy additives, preservatives, and other undesirables out of their diet have more options at their disposal than ever before to help themselves steer clear of unwanted additives, processed foods, and the full gamut of unwanted edibles.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?

 

James Pero