Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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Another Misleading, Short-Sighted Food Rating System

A couple of weeks ago, the Environmental Working Group released a food database that houses ratings and other information for more than 80,000 foods, including thousands of dairy products, in a searchable, online format (for more details, please see “New EWG Food Rating System Uses Nutrition, Ingredients Of Concern, Degree of Processing,” on page 3 of our October 31st issue).

After looking over the ratings on EWG’s website, we’ve concluded that this is just another short-sighted, misleading food rating system that could end up doing consumers more harm than good.

EWG’s food rating system, “Food Scores,” uses three factors to give foods a score between 1 (best) and 10 (worst): nutrition, “ingredient concerns,” and “processing concerns.” Generally, nutrition counts the most in EWG’s ratings, followed by ingredient concerns and then degree of processing.

To EWG’s credit, this is a mighty impressive undertaking. The organization has examined a massive number of food products, including almost 4,600 cheese and cheese alternatives, almost 1,900 yogurt and related products, almost 1,500 beverage milk and non-dairy beverage products, over 2,700 ice cream and frozen yogurt products, over 500 half and half and creamer products, and close to 200 sour cream products.

Also impressive is the fact that all of these numbers are higher than what we reported two weeks ago, indicating that EWG continues to add products to its database.

And the details on these food products are pretty impressive. Among other things, EWG posts ingredient lists and nutrition information for every product in its database (at least the ones we checked). Some company and branded product websites probably don’t have such detailed information about their own products.

While the sheer amount of information is impressive, the product ratings come up woefully short. And they come up short in all three areas in which foods are rated: nutrition, ingredients of concern, and degree of processing.

First and foremost is nutrition, which, as noted earlier, generally counts the most in EWG’s ratings. One would think that dairy products would benefit here, since most dairy products are nutrient-dense foods; that is, they provide a variety of important nutrients and not all that many calories.

But that’s not how EWG sees things, or more importantly, how EWG scores things. For example, EWG gives relatively low scores to most cheese products because “they are high in calories, saturated fat and sodium.”

Just the way EWG phrases that is cause for concern. Cheese products aren’t necessarily high in any of those items, if they are part of a balanced diet. And this is a problem with any food-rating system: it only rates foods, not overall diets. This good food-bad food mentality has been around for years, and so has the trend of rising obesity. That’s not just a coincidence.

Also, it’s noteworthy that two of the items singled out by EWG as problems with cheese are the subject of considerable controversy these days. Saturated fat is beginning to emerge as far less of a dietary villain that it has been for decades, and the pendulum is also starting to swing back on sodium.

Indeed, reducing a food’s score because it contains sodium is ridiculous, since sodium is an essential component of the diet. It also ignores the many essential roles salt plays in cheese, ranging from texture to shelf life. To penalize cheese products just because they contain sodium is short-sighted and potentially harmful.

Indeed, this helps illustrate a key problem with EWG’s food rating system (and most other food rating systems, for that matter).

Ken Cook, EWG’s president and co-founder, said his organization developed its Food Scores for two reasons. First, because Americans are “becoming increasingly concerned about excessive amounts of sugar, salt, fat and other unhealthy ingredients” in their food.

But what exactly qualifies as an “excessive” amount? Salt, as noted earlier, is essential to the cheesemaking process, but EWG seems intent on penalizing cheese products because they all contain salt.

Second, Cook said Americans “no longer trust” big food companies or popular brands, but with EWG’s Food Scores, “shoppers can quickly see what food companies are really putting into their food.”
Well, even without EWG’s Food Scores, shoppers can see what food companies are putting into their food, because most packaged food products are required to include an ingredient statement.

What EWG does beyond that is offer its opinions about various ingredients and processes. For example, organic dairy products receive up to four “+” signs because, among other things, they are: certified organic; because antibiotics are not allowed in organic dairy production; and because hormones are not used in the production of organic dairy ingredients.

The flip side of that, of course, is that conventionally produced dairy products receive “minuses” for, among other things: antibiotics were “likely used” in their production (ignoring the facts that antibiotics are used to treat sick cows, and that all tankers of milk are screened for antibiotics before being processed); hormones “may have been used” in their production (EWG seems to believe that either dairy farmers are organic or use BST/BGH); and high-fat dairy products are likely “contaminated with dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants” (where’s the proof?).

EWG assembled an awful lot of information in its database, but its “Food Scores” is yet another example of a food rating system that simplifies complex nutrition and other issues and thus is misleading and short-sighted. DG

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