The Environmental Working Group, best known for lambasting fresh produce with its annual “Dirty Dozen” list, has released a new food database and smart phone app that recommends eating the same produce it has been railing against for years.
The “Food Scores” app rates about 80,000 foods on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being the best and 10 the worst. Only 18 percent of the foods, including most fresh fruits and vegetables, received the highest rating (1-3.5), while 57 percent scored in the middle range (4-7) and 25 percent were ranked in the worst category of 8-10.
EWG calls the new tool “the most comprehensive food-rating database available to consumers.” The scoring system factors in nutritional information as well as food additives, such as sugar, and contaminants, such as pesticides. It also estimates the degree to which foods have been processed.
“When you think about healthy food, you have to think beyond the Nutrition Facts panel,” Renee Sharp, EWG’s director of research, said in a press release. “It doesn’t always tell the whole story. EWG’s Food Scores shows that certain foods that we think are good for us may actually be much less so because they contain questionable food additives or toxic contaminants.”
According to the press release, the new app is designed to “guide people to greener, healthier and cleaner food choices” by providing “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. The app also identifies meat and dairy products that are likely produced with antibiotics and hormones and highlights the fruits and vegetables that are likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues.
In perusing the scoring, it appears that the system is especially harsh on added sugars while giving much better scores to items that are not processed. And while the system notes the fresh produce items that regularly make the group’s “Dirty Dozen” list for excessive pesticides, those fruits and vegetables don’t appear to be harshly judged for their appearance on that list.
For example, cherry tomatoes made the “Dirty Dozen” list this year coming in 10th place with the note that a single sample tested positive for 13 different pesticides. Yet a 10.5 ounce package of cherry tomatoes scored a 1.5 in the EWG Food Scores system, which places it high in the “Best” category.
The notes about this particular pack of cherry tomatoes do state that the produce is on “EWG’s Dirty Dozen list for pesticide residues” but also gives the product good marks for no processing, no additives and being “one of the most nutritious vegetables for the lowest cost.”
The cherry tomato listing also contains this information that is included in all the fresh produce listings: “Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is an essential part of a healthy diet.”
While the Food Score listings do differentiate between organic and conventional items, the scores are typically very similar.
For example an eight-ounce container of both organic and conventional mushrooms from different companies receive the highest 1.0 rating. The same is true for many different packaged salad products, which all received very high marks (typically between 1.0 and 1.5), though both organic and conventional packs are included and as are many different blends.
The Alliance for Food & Farming, a produce industry trade group that has waged a concerted battle for several years against the publicity the “Dirty Dozen” list has received, weighed in on EWG’s new effort.
“In light of this new ‘best’ ranking for organic and conventional produce and EWG’s new and very strong statement regarding the need for increased consumption, we are hopeful this means they will discontinue their annual release of the so-called ‘Dirty Dozen’ list,” Marilyn Dolan, executive director of the Alliance, said in a press release. “This ‘best’ ranking is a very positive step by EWG and we look forward to them continuing this trend by dropping their list, which only confuses consumers about produce safety.”
Dolan also praised EWG’s new statement promoting increased consumption of organic and conventional produce.
EWG now states, “Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables–especially dark green, red and orange varieties, as well as beans and peas–is an essential part of a healthy diet. Fruit and vegetable intake is associated with reduced risk of heart attack, stroke and some types of cancers (USDA and DHHS 2010). Fruits and vegetables are also key sources of potassium and dietary fiber — nutrients that many Americans do not get enough of. Perhaps that’s because on average, Americans eat only 42 percent and 59 percent of the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables, respectively (USDA and DHHS 2010), making them one of the few foods we should all eat more of.”
Dolan said it is an important step that EWG is adopting the same health message put forth by the Alliance and many other health experts.
No spokesperson for EWG was available to comment on the new app.