By now, most health-conscious folks know that it’s a good idea to take a peek at their groceries’ nutrition facts before hitting the checkout line. But how much does that little label really reveal?
“Many consumers focus on the food label as a way to gauge food quality. While this gives you one metric regarding nutrients, it doesn’t tell you much about the wholesomeness of your food,” says Bethany Doerfler, RD, LDN, and a clinical research dietician at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.
Enter the new Food Scores tool, released this week by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The easy-to-use food calculator gives shoppers insight into how healthy grub is, based on scores derived from nutrition content, processing and artificial ingredients. The database of over 80,000 foods, which took three years to develop, ranks each item on a scale of 1 (good) to 10 (bad).
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Spend five minutes with this tool and we’re sure you’ll discover some disturbing facts about items that may be lurking in your pantry. Only 18 percent of the products in the database received a score of 1 to 3.5, placing them in the “green” zone, indicating that they are healthy choices. Meanwhile, 25 percent of foods land in the “red” zone, receiving marks of 8 to 10. Here, we break down a few of the most interesting findings revealed by Food Scores.
The Good, Bad and Ugly from EWG’s New Food Calculator
Granola Bars and Cereal
These snacks pack a nasty punch when it comes to added sugar — the EWG found that 92 percent of granola and trail mix bars contained the sweet stuff. “In some cases sugar made up to a third of the weight of the granola bar. Think about it, it’s mind-boggling,” says Nneka Leiba, EWG’s Deputy Director of Research. In fact, some Quaker Chewy Dipps Granola Bars contain up to 45 percent sugar by weight.
The good news: There are healthy granola bar options out there; you just have to look for them. “You can’t just assume that because it’s a granola bar, it will be a safe option,” Leiba says. “But the good thing about database is that for every single category, regardless of how good or bad, we’re always able to suggest healthier options.”
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A better choice: Larabar’s Banana Bread bar, which earns a 2.8, is high in protein and contains no artificial or industrial ingredients.
When it comes to cold cereals, the findings are just as grim. Thirty-two percent of cereals in the database contain ingredients of “high concern,” due to the presence of preservatives, additives or contaminants. Products like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes contain 51 percent more sugar than the average cold cereal.
As Turkey Day approaches, you might want to plan on making homemade stuffing, and nixing boxed-up store mixes altogether. Thirty-nine percent of packaged stuffing contains ingredients of high concern, such as pesticides, food additives, antibiotics or contaminants linked to health problems. And, the EWG’s research reveals that a whopping 100 percent of stuffing mixes contain added sugars.
“That was definitely a surprise,” Leiba says. “If you think you’re trying to avoid sugar, you avoid the cookies and candy aisle, not stuffing… But in our society sugars have become ubiquitous.” With their new tool, the EWG hopes it will be easier for consumers to spot items containing hidden sweeteners — and weed them out of their diet.
There’s no sugar-coating this one: Up to 98 percent of deli meats contain added sugars, according to the EWG. What’s more, 52 percent of meat products also contain highly worrisome ingredients, including nitrites, a suspected carcinogen. “Nitrites are found in processed meats as a preservative,” Leiba says. “A lot of people aren’t aware there are additives in food linked to cancer — why would there be? That’s a question we want to know and we are asking.”
While Applegate’s Organic Smoked Turkey breast ranks at a respectable 3.5 due to its organic label and antibiotic-free production, Buddig’s Honey Roasted Turkey clocks in at a 9. The less-savory choice contains four ingredients of concern: sodium nitrite, sodium phosphates, natural flavors and carrageenan.
Step away from the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats. Despite having only 90 calories per bar, these beloved marshmallow bites are deceptively bad for you. Each serving contains the equivalent of two whole teaspoons of added sugar, making the squares 36 percent added sugar by weight. Also found in these snacks: butylated hydroxytoluene, an ingredient that’s been linked to lung cancer, thyroid problems and liver tumors in animal studies, according to the EWG.
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Another surprise: Ghiradelli Dark Chocolate Squares with assorted fillings clock in at a 10 on the Food Scores scale. Though the packaging is fancy, and the chocolate is dark, these rich bites contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils — a source of trans fats. With 37 percent of your daily saturated fat and five teaspoons of added and natural sugars in each three-square serving, we’re going to say this sweet treat might not be worth it. Compare it to Scharffen Berger Dark Chocolate, which was ranked at a 4.
Even more shockingly, it turns out not even frozen yogurt is a safe bet when it comes to sweets. Ben & Jerry’s Raspberry Fudge Chunk Greek Frozen Yogurt gets a 9. It has six teaspoons of added and natural sugars per serving, and high levels of saturated fats. A better bet: Stonyfield Oikos Organic Nonfat Greek Frozen Yogurt in chocolate earns a slightly more respectable 4.5.
Make-Over Your Plate
Don’t worry, the database will never encourage you to give up your favorite snacks entirely. “If you’re looking for corn chips and the EWG says, ‘No, have an apple,’ [we know the] consumer will laugh,” Leiba says. “So on every product page we have a graph to show how the product you’re looking at compares to other products within the same category.”
That said, nutrition experts advise that eating clean is the best way to stay healthy, in the long run.
“While this tool is a great guide to eating well, consumers can eat intuitively by simply sticking to real foods. Try to avoid as many packaged and processed foods as possible,” Doerfler says. “There should be no confusion that an apple rivals corn puffs….even if [those corn puffs] are organic and minimally processed.”
What did the Food Scores tool reveal about your favorite goodies? Tell us in the comments section.