Database ≠ Science

Highlights: 
  • Databases of food information seem credible, but digging into the methodology raises some questions.
  • The latest food database attempt by EWG villifies numerous ingredients and issues that have been proven safe for consumption, discouraging consumers from eating nutrient-rich foods.
  • Comparing all foods with the same single score implies that all foods are the same and are meant to offer the same things, but that isn’t the case.

Database ≠ Science

One thing that we’ve seen popping up in the public food consciousness is databases: databases of ingredients, calories, nutrients, you name it. While we’re excited to see such an emphasis on making food information more accessible to consumers, we’re also seeing some major issues with the databases that are out there. Putting information into a database format sure makes it seem credible, but it does not make it so. The information itself needs to be evidence-based and accepted by scientific experts in order to actually help consumers. The latest food database, released by the Environmental Working Group, uses a fuzzy algorithm that includes both nutrition information (based on the UK’s standards for advertising food to children- not healthfulness for the average adult diet); degree of processing (not a great proxy for nutritional value, as we discuss here); and presence of chemicals/ingredients (which, again, is not an indicator of healthfulness as all foods are made up of chemicals).

Here are a few key parts of the EWG algorithm that we just don’t get:

Seafood SafetyMercury: EWG’s assessment of mercury in fish is both out of date and out of context. It’s true that some seafood varieties contain higher levels of toxins such as mercury which occurs naturally in the environment. These namely include shark, tilefish, king mackerel and swordfish. This doesn’t include many of the fish that are more common in our diets, like tuna, yet EWG gives some canned tuna the worst possible food score. The current FDA/EPA draft advisory recommends consuming 8 – 12 oz. of fish per week, and Americans aren’t even close. Why scare us off a food that provides important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health, while being among the most budget-friendly out there? Fishy…

Bisphenol A (BPA): The FDA has continued to confirm that BPA is used safely in food packaging after incredibly extensive research. Not only that, BPA actually keeps food protected from contaminants. Dinging nutrient-dense food for being packed in a safe container isn’t just silly- it’s irresponsible to consumers trying to find food that’s healthful, affordable, and long-lasting.

How Processed Foods Contribute to Nutrition

Degree of Processing: As we’ve talked about time and time again, processing isn’t a good barometer for nutritional content. In fact, processing can even add nutrition; if it weren't for enrichment and fortification of foods, NHANES found that "large percentages of the population would have had inadequate intakes of vitamins A, C, D, E, thiamin, folate, calcium, magnesium, and iron.” Learn more about how packaged foods impact our nutrition.

Pesticide Residue: To privilege organic fruits and veggies, ‘pesticide residues’ are weighted into produce scores, using EWG’s other media-friendly product, the “Dirty Dozen” list. The ranking takes into account waterway concerns in agricultural areas, which are certainly an important discussion for sustainability, but has nothing to do with the health or safety of the products we eat. As Dr. Carl Winter, Director, FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, says, “Are such rankings validated by a careful examination of scientific evidence?  Absolutely not.  Should you continue to try to eat more fruits and vegetables? Absolutely.” So remember that this score takes a substantial step away from your health and safety, and continue to choose the nutrient-rich fruits and veggies that you know and love.

Colors and Other Ingredients: Foods that contain colors also get negative marks from EWG, despite being approved as safe by the FDA. Though EWG doesn’t get into depth about every ingredient they evaluate, they do say that they score foods based on a “precautionary position,” which assumes a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality that would eliminate most of U.S.-approved food additives and ingredients, despite the fact that they have been shown to be safe through scientific research and approved for use in food.  We talk about a wide cross-section of ingredients and their safety rulings here, and again, the presence of FDA-approved, safe ingredients shouldn’t deter you from having packaged foods.

It's the quality of the diet that matters, not quality of the food.  Consumers could think that by choosing all highly rated foods that they would always have a good diet.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A diet that is not balanced for food groups and nutrients has poor health outcomes, regardless of the rating of the food.

-Julie Miller Jones, Professor and Nutritionist, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus on Foods and Nutrition, St. Catherine University

julie-jones-diet-qualityOur biggest concern is that ratings for individual foods fail to put the food in the context of a whole diet. We shouldn’t avoid fish out of the fear of mercury, because most of our diets don’t have nearly enough of the nutritional properties that fish provide, let alone the copious amount that it would take for mercury to have any impact. Mangos may be an A+ food, but eating mangos all day, every day is not a fast track towards health (nor are the readily accessible and affordable to all). Comparing all foods with the same single score implies that all foods are the same and are meant to offer the same things, but that isn’t the case. There are nutrients specific to certain foods, and you need to have a balanced intake of different foods depending on your nutrient needs, even if they may not score as highly.

Do we need more consumer accessible information? Absolutely. But please remember when using these tools: A database is only as good as the information it contains.

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