Blog: Dean BestUS food industry takes aim at new nutrition app

Dean Best | 28 October 2014

A mobile app that claims to be the "most comprehensive food-rating database available" to US consumers has raised the hackles of the country's food manufacturers.

Environmental Working Group, an NGO campaigning on public health and the environment, has launched Food Scores: Rate Your Plate, a database and app with information on over 80,000 foods sold by around 1,500 brands.

At face value, the tool meets two key consumer trends: one the growing interest in health and what goes into the food we eat and, two, the increased use of mobile devices, including in-store, as a means of weighing up what foods to buy.

However, the app has drawn fierce criticism from US food manufacturers. Industry organisation The Grocery Manufacturers Association rapidly released a statement that insisted the ratings behind the app were "severely flawed".

"The methodology employed by EWG to develop their new food ratings 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," the GMA said. "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. Not only will the EWG ratings provide consumers with inaccurate and misleading information, they will also falsely alarm and confuse consumers about their product choices."

The GMA insisted the launch of the Food Scores app "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".

For those operating outside the US, the Nutrition Facts panel was introduced in 1994 to give consumers guidance of the content of the foods they eat. Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced plans to update the labels.

Launching the app, the EWG insisted consumers also needed to consider other information. "When you think about healthy food, you have to think beyond the Nutrition Facts panel," said Renee Sharp, the EWG's director of research. "It doesn't always tell the whole story. EWG's Food Scores shows that certain foods that we think are good for us may actually be much less so because they contain questionable food additives or toxic contaminants."

The app gives products a score, with 1 classifying the items "best" and 10 "worst". It claims to take in nutritional content, while on meat and dairy, it also considers whether products are likely to be produced with antibiotics and hormones. Fruits and vegetables are also rated on whether they are likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues.

The EWG yesterday released its first full analysis of the more than 80,000 foods in the database. It said the analysis "represents a snapshot of products that carry a barcode in a typical grocery store, from bagged spinach to yogurt to tortilla chips".

It added: "Overall, EWG found that only about 18% of products scored best (1-3.5), 57% scored in the middle range (4-7), and 25% scored worst (8-10)."

Ken Cook, president of the EWG, added: "As EWG's Food Scores: Rate Your Plate reveals in detail, popular brands in many categories are not so much food as they are conveyances for excessive amounts of sugar, salt and preservatives."

The analysis can be read here.

The app is free and one expects health-conscious consumers to at least try it out when deciding which foods to buy.

And it is clear the food industry believes consumers will be interested in the app, given its fast and furious reaction.

However, the app's success will depend on whether the information behind it can be trusted, while, of course, perhaps those consumers most needing to make changes to their diets will be using their iPhones for a whole range of other things than weighing up their nutritional content of their food.

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