Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A New Tool to Better Understand Your Food

The food on your plate is the product of a unique supply chain. Sometimes it's complex, other times more intimate between farmer and consumer. Either way, food production is not just a question of ingredients, but also how such ingredients are processed together, and ultimately the composite nutritional value of the food. 

Nothing epitomizes this more then the current debate about GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling on food products. Advocates want to know - and claim it's their right to know - what is precisely in the food they are eating. A number of state legislatures have also considered legislation on the issue. The debate rages regarding the health implications of GMOs, but either way, from a transparency perspective, I'm always in favor of having as much information as is needed to make an informed decision about the things I value.

This is why I was so excited to see a new resource available to help consumers make more informed decisions about food. The Environmental Working Group released a new comprehensive database of 80,000 foods last week, called Food Scores. It scores each food in three primary areas: ingredients, processing, and nutrition. Each individual food receives an overall score, and includes an a very useful summary page with other information about the nutrition facts, ingredients, and how that particular product compares with similar products. 

Here are a few screen shots of the interface.

But of course I'm always skeptical of these types of scoring tools. An index score is only as useful as the underlying assumptions are sound. In the case of Food Scores, I went straight to the nutrition scoring methodology to better understand those nutrients deemed "good" and which fell into the "bad" category.

A few thoughts:

1. Fewer calories prevail. I've written a bit on this, so I won't spend too much time on it. But, calories aren't necessarily something we need to be afraid of, or always cut. More importantly, it's quite easy to reduce calories while at the same time add in more unnatural ingredients and processing. A classic example I like to refer to from Rich Food, Poor Food is in comparing regular Lays potato chips and "Baked Lays," the so-called healthier alternative. Baked Lays has fewer calories, but it also has a bunch more unnatural ingredients. 

2. Saturated fat is still demonized. Though more and more research is supporting the contrary, prevailing opinions continue to claim high saturated fat intake as one of the primary causes of cardiovascular disease. Similar to calories, the Food Scores methodology takes the "less is better" approach.    

3. The methodology seems contradictory when it comes to naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit. On the one hand it puts natural sugar in the "negative factors" category, while also having fruit content as a positive factor. All fruit has sugar, some more so then others. By processing fruit, such as with juicing, it's quite easy to create a fairly concentrated source sugar, which if consumed consistently over time, has implications for insulin, cognition, energy levels, and long-term health.

4. Lastly, though some aspects of the underlying methodology can be debated, the database is extremely powerful in supplying different types of information related to a huge number of foods. However, for a usability perspective, going to a website can be a cumbersome process for many consumers. Who has time to search for everything that's going to be included on their grocery list that week? It will be interesting to see if the EWG takes additional steps, such as creating a smartphone app, to try and make the database more accessible and usable.

Take a look at the tool and let me know what you think in the comments.  

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