Can a Single Number Sum Up Your Food?

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Liz Caselli-Mechael (202) 296-4546 or

Can a single number sum up your food?

EWG’s latest food database aims high, falls short

(Washington, D.C., October 27, 2014) — Making food information accessible, clear, and easy to understand is a great goal that many of us in the nutrition and food safety communities share. However, accomplishing this goal comes long before the information actually reaches consumers- it’s critical that the information itself is evidence-based and broadly accepted by scientific experts. Most Americans (52 percent) think that figuring out their income taxes is easier than knowing what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2012 Food & Health Survey. The Survey found that people think a great deal about the healthfulness of their diets and want to make improvements. Yet, 76 percent agree that ever-changing nutritional guidance makes it hard to know what to believe.

When it comes to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) food scores database, we have significant concerns about the quality of food safety information presented and about the lack of emphasis on the whole diet, both of which hinder the ability of the database to help consumers reach their health goals. 

Applying ratings to individual foods, without the context of a whole diet and long term, individual health outcomes, can mislead consumers into believing that a single recommended food makes them healthy, which isn’t the case.  Will this database really help consumers reach their health goals, or will it add more confusion?  Our labeling research indicates that when consumers see one-off guidance, like a label or grade, without nutritional context, confusion about how to balance their diet actually increases.  There is an especially high risk of confusion when that number is meant to incorporate nutritional advice, ingredient safety information with varying accuracy, and environmental sustainability factors.

“EWG uses an arbitrary approach to weigh specific factors such as nutrition, chemical contamination, and degree of processing as well as arbitrary approaches within each of these factors,” says Dr. Carl Winter, Director, FoodSafe Program and Extension Food Toxicologist at the University of California, “Furthermore, this approach ignores critical scientific criteria such as the toxicity and degree of exposure to chemicals in foods.” Read more about the weighted algorithm considerations in the latest FACTS blog.

In an environment where foods serve different purposes from a nutrient, caloric, and even enjoyment perspective, we fear a single number score could work against consumers’ ability to make informed decisions about their food and health.


For interview requests and to be connected with subject matter experts, please contact the IFIC Foundation media team at 202-296-4546,  

The International Food Information Council Foundation is dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good. The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit