In a society that likes to quantify things (think test scores in education, speed dating rubrics, number of Facebook friends), here’s a new database that could be helpful: a food scoring system of over 80,000 products that rates foods based on factors related to nutrition and processing. According to this New York Times article, the Environmental Working Group has created a database that “aims to assign a score from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best, to each product based on how nutritious it is, how many ingredients in it or its packaging raise concerns and an estimate of how processed it is. Factors include whether a product is organically certified; raised according to various animal welfare standards or without antibiotics; and exposed to environmental contaminants and pesticides.” The overall score is based on the interaction between three categories: Nutrition, Ingredients and Processing. While this sounds good in concept, the relationship between theory and practical application can often be quite broad, so I went shopping.
To examine the utility of the Food Scores database, I took it for a test run at CVS this week, stopping briefly in three confusing sections of dubious and discrepant nutrition value: cereals, granola bars, and snack foods. It’s always hard to find the healthiest choices amidst all the products with colorful packaging and a wide variety of nutritional claims, so I decided to see if the new database could help.
First up? Granola bars! I compared Nutri-Grain Blueberry bars to Nature Valley Cinnamon bars, because both seem relatively healthy. Surprisingly, though, despite having similarly high sugar contents (32% and 29% of calories from sugar, respectively), the Nutri-Grain bars came out the loser, scoring 7 out of 10 points instead of the 5 out of 10 assigned to Nature Valley. The higher (i.e., detrimental) score of the Nutri-Grain bars seemed attributable to a greater proportion of processed foods in the bars than in the Nature Valley bars (Processing risk was calculated as high vs. moderate, respectively, according to the database).
I then traipsed over to the cereal section, investigating Honey Nut Cheerios vs. Corn Chex. In this comparison, Honey Nut Cheerios scored worse (6) than Corn Chex (5), predominantly because of the higher sugar content of Honey Nut Cheerios. This was helpful to see because I often tend to underestimate the amount of sugar in what I perceive to be “healthier” kid cereals.
Finally, I took a look at the snacks– always the hardest to judge, in my opinion. I consider Chex Mix to be a fairly benign snack relative to potato chips, so I compared basic Chex Mix to Pringles. Surprisingly, though, the Pringles scored a point better (5 vs 6), again because of a lower proportion of processed foods in the ingredients.
So, is this a helpful database? Well, I considered its utility based on two criteria: the ability to change a) knowledge and b) buying behavior. With respect to the former, it has substantial informational power, since it informs consumers on factors that aren’t always at the forefront of our awareness. With respect to buying behavior, though, it’s a little less persuasive, since I have a hard time believing that consumers will change purchasing habits based on a difference of one or two points between products. But, my sample size needs to increase, so out and try it and see what you think!