Behind the Ratings: Food

My daughter Minju has a peanut allergy. So, my wife and I are used to reading labels to avoid products with peanuts. But over the last month, all of America has come to fear and avoid peanuts as nine people have died and almost 700 have been sickened by salmonella contamination that led to recalls of almost 3,000 different food products. This even hit us at GoodGuide when our team’s beloved Clif Bars were recalled.

The peanut scandal follows closely on the heels of several other food safety crises: melamine recently showed up in baby formula, E. coli was found in bagged spinach, and an outbreak of salmonella occurred in chili peppers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year an estimated 76 million people in the U.S. contract a food borne illness, leading to 5,000 deaths.

But even if we can avoid these contamination outbreaks, it turns out, there are a range of other serious issues to worry about with food. I think of myself as a fairly knowledgeable, healthy eater. But I was shocked when we began our research on food products and found out what’s actually in the food we eat. It turns out that when I pack my daughter’s “healthy” afternoon snack of a juice box and a fruit snack, I’m really feeding her two desserts filled with high fructose corn syrup, added sugars, and artificial colors. Some juices have more sugar than a can of soda!

That is why we are incredibly excited to announce the release of GoodGuide’s first ratings of food products.


For the last year we’ve been working to develop a simplified method to inform the public about the health, environmental, and social performance of food. This has turned out to be very challenging for two main reasons: food is complicated, and the food industry and the US government have not made it easy for people to understand the full impacts of food products.

Many great nutritionists have of course identified simple steps for eating better: Eat a balanced diet. Eat smaller portions. Eat more fruits and vegetables. And try to cut down on sugar and salt.

Unfortunately, beyond these important principles, the food industry makes it difficult to choose between products, or even to know the basic facts of the products we eat. So, the GoodGuide team has been working to develop simple metrics to analyze and compare overall nutrition, health impacts, environmental impacts, and social performance of food products and companies.

We are using a nutrition scoring system developed by a team of academics called the “RRR” or “Triple R” score which stands for the Ratio of Recommended to Restricted nutrients. In addition to this nutrition score, we have developed a simple ingredient hazard score for preservatives and additives, an environmental impact score, and a social impact score. To learn more about our ratings visit our methodology page.

Today, we are launching ratings of around 5,000 products that children regularly eat. But this is just the beginning for food. Check back regularly because we’ll be adding tens of thousands of additional food products to our database over the next month. We’re also developing tools for you to discover how processed a product is, and how transparent a company is about its supply chain. You will soon be able to search for specific ingredients and who owns your favorite food company.

We would love to hear your feedback on how to make our site more useful, more accessible, and ultimately help empower you to make informed choices in the grocery aisles. So check out our new food ratings and let us know what you think!

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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6 Responses to Behind the Ratings: Food

  1. Ed Beckman says:

    In reference to your comments –

    "The peanut scandal follows closely on the heels of several other food safety crises: melamine recently showed up in baby formula, E. coli was found in bagged spinach, and an outbreak of salmonella occurred in tomatoes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year an estimated 76 million people in the U.S. contract a food borne illness, leading to 5,000 deaths."

    Your reference to salmonella and tomatoes is misleading. The 2008 outbreak of salmonella was linked to peppers, not tomatoes. Further, the CDC makes a number of assumptions based upon statistical analysis that may or may not prove accurate. While we all concerned with the safety of fresh produce, it’s important to keep in proper context the documented source of salmonella as compared to statistical evidence.

    One of the great challenges that a consumer faces is related to product origin and the food safety practices of the farmer. It’s not how big or how small that’s important – it’s that the grower is dedicated to minimizing the risk of microbial contamination on the farm and that his customers including supermarkets or other points of service, maintain that same attention to maintaining the quality established by the farm. Today’s consumer has the right to know where their fresh produce was grown.

    But, food safety is not limited to the farm. It requires that we all take responsibility for the food we select and prepare for ourselves and families.

  2. Dara says:

    Ed – Thanks for your comment. And good catch on the salmonella issue. You are right that after months of research the government was able to finally track down the source as chili peppers. Sorry for my error. In the spinach case it similarly took months to find the small farm where the outbreak originated. I totally agree that what is needed is for farmers and food manufacturers to have good food safety systems (such as HACCP programs) in place. I will be blogging about this next week. Thanks! Dara

  3. Susie says:

    Hi,

    I didn’t notice allergen statements along with the other nutritional info. Did I miss that? If not, are you planning on adding it so it could be a filter for browsing?

    Thanks.

  4. James says:

    This web site is a good idea but I’m disappointed by your incredibly simplistic, naive and misleading food rating system. Your RRR approach is so flawed I don’t even know where to start. If your goal really is to do the world good I strongly recommend consulting with a respected naturopathic physician to give you some insight into the real world of food nutrition.

  5. LnddMiles says:

    Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

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