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GMA Assails Environmental Group's Food Scores


An environmental watchdog group has launched a new food rating system that purports to help people eat healthier, but at least one food industry organization isn't buying it.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) rolled out Food Scores, available at the group's website and as an app for handheld devices, which aims to "help consumers make healthier, greener food choices." The database, which took three years to construct, includes more than 80,000 foods, 5,000 ingredients and 1,500 brands. Individual products in every grocery store category are rated based on ingredients, nutrition concerns and processing, according to a complex methodology.

'Severely flawed," says GMA

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) calls the new food rating scheme "severely flawed" and argues it "will only provide consumers with misinformation about the food and beverage products they trust and enjoy."

EWG's Food Scores assigns foods an overall score between 1 (best) and 10 (worst). The overall score is calculated by adding the individual nutrition, ingredient concern and processing scores. In the combined score, the ingredient concern and processing scores carry less weight, reflecting what EWG calls the "greater relative importance of the nutritional quality of food."

So the higher the score, the "worse" the food. EWG adds an additional 0.5 for foods that are not certified organic (or 0.2 for foods certified to be made with 70 percent organic ingredients). A visit to the Food Scores database quickly reveals that organic foods dominate the top ratings in just about every category reviewed.

GMA contends that EWG's methodology is "void of the scientific rigor and objectivity that should be devoted to any effort to provide consumers with reliable nutrition and food safety information.  Their ratings are based almost entirely on assumptions they made about the amount, value and safety of ingredients in the products they rate.  Adding insult to injury, EWG conducted no tests to confirm the validity of any of their assumptions."

As such, GMA contends, these ratings provide consumers with "inaccurate and misleading" information, and will also "falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices. Embedded in the ratings are EWG's extreme and scientifically unfounded views on everything from low-calorie sweeteners to the nutritional value of organic foods."

EWG, which describes itself as a "non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment" whose mission is to "empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment," has a history of what its critics have described as fearmongering and skewing analyses to jump to the worst possible conclusions deemed unlikely or unfounded by other scientific organizations. EWG says its ranks consist of "scientists, policy experts, lawyers, communication experts and programmers."

GMA says 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 best advice for consumers seeking to achieve and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, GMA asserts, is to follow the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include eating a variety of foods as recommended by combined with regular physical activity to create an overall healthy lifestyle.

"When it comes to the safety of our products, food and beverage manufacturers adhere to extremely stringent food safety standards and our industry is also highly regulated by experts at the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture," GMA declares. "Food safety is our number-one priority and we devote enormous resources to ensure that our products are safe."

Assumptions Challenged

  • GMA issued these examples of assumptions and its general concerns about EWG's Food Scores:
  • All conventionally produced products automatically penalized despite significant evidence that nutrition value of organic and conventional products are comparable.
  • Makes assumptions about the proportion of added sugars contained in a product.
  • Cites isolated studies that purport that added sugars are processed differently by the body than naturally-occurring sugars; not reflective of consensus science.
  • Cites isolated studies about possible negative impacts of low-calorie sweeteners for rationale to treat as a negative factor in nutrition score; not reflective of consensus science.
  • Cites "tiny serving sizes" as a negative factor in nutrition scoring without acknowledging that serving size is determined and regulated by FDA, not food manufacturers.
  • Factors in the "ingredients of concern" algorithm are weighted arbitrarily. No explanation is given for how or why the algorithm factors are weighted the way that they are.
  • No consideration given to the amount of an ingredient contained in a food product. EWG assumes that all products contain the ingredient's Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) amount (amount that can be ingested daily over a lifetime without appreciable risk), despite fact that most products contain less than ADI. When an ADI is not available, EWG assumes an acceptable value three times smaller than the standard used by the FDA and other leading world health agencies.
  • The concentration of contaminants was not determined by analytical methods, only estimated from online sources. No consideration given to factors such as where the product was sourced (e.g. rice from Texas typically has higher levels of arsenic than rice from California).
  • "Degree of Processing": As EWG acknowledges, this entire rating is based on EWG guesses about how a product and its ingredients were made.

The Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association represents more than 300 leading food, beverage and consumer product companies.   

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