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EWG's Food Scores Gives Snapshot of the State of America's Food Landscape

By Ken Cook, EWG President and Cofounder

No single experience captures the day-to-day abundance — and excesses — of American consumer culture better than a stroll through a supermarket.

We’re so accustomed to a mind-boggling cornucopia of choices — hundreds and hundreds of cereals and sodas and breads and pastas and desserts and frozen meals and on and on — that we no longer marvel at this seemingly endless array of choices. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve begun to wonder which of the tens of thousands of products on display are better for us and which ones may be culprits in the national struggle with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic health problems.

It is common knowledge that the best foods for you and your family are home-cooked meals made of ingredients that do not come pre-packed. These unpackaged fruits, vegetables, fish, meats and grains should make up the bulk of everyone’s diet.

But life is complicated. There is not always enough time in the day to shop for and prepare fresh meals for your family. You may need finger foods for school brown-bag lunches and snacks to keep kids going during sports and other after-school activities. If you care for an elderly parent or other relative, you may seek out pre-packaged frozen meals. Excursions into the center aisles of the grocery store — filled with packaged foods — are often unavoidable. To help you make the best choices, EWG created its new Food Scores: Rate Your Plate database, which rates a great many of the products you see there.

Today, shoppers who care about the quality of food and how it was produced might look for labels like “natural” and “whole grain,” “organic” or “non-GMO certified,” even as they wonder which claims mean something and which are marketing hype. The truly conscientious scrutinize the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of the package. But few if any of us have the time or patience to peruse an entire food section and compare one label with another, much less read the microscopic fine print that lists ingredients we often cannot pronounce.

That’s where EWG’s Food Scores comes in. As you walk the store or write your shopping list, you have a powerful, fast, authoritative guide to greener, cleaner and healthier food choices.

In every one of dozens of supermarket categories, shoppers can use Food Scores to cut through the noise of brand advertising, dubious marketing claims and misleading nutrition labels.

Food Scores will help you find healthier choices in nearly every aisle of the supermarket. You can search out foods that offer superior nutrition, contain fewer additives and other chemicals, are less likely to contain worrisome contaminants and are processed (if at all) in ways that have more in common with a kitchen than a chemical plant.

EWG’s Food Scores is the first guide to the American supermarket landscape to rate foods against all three of these criteria: nutritional value; health concerns about ingredients (including additives and preservatives) and contaminants (such as mercury, arsenic and BPA); and the degree and type of processing.

As a leading source of practical information for healthier living, EWG developed its unique food rating system to tally the pluses and minuses of 5,000 food ingredients and finished products from 1,500 brands. We have applied our ratings to more than 80,000 foods found on American supermarket shelves, analyzing an extensive collection of data assembled by LabelINSIGHT®, an independent product label database and analysis platform.

We grade tough

EWG’s product scores range from 1 (best) to 10 (worst). Only one food out of six earns Food Scores’ top rating. Here’s how the scores break down across the 80,000+ products:

  • Only 18 percent score green (1-3.5).
  • 57 percent score yellow to orange (4-7).
  • 25 percent score red (8-10).

With a few taps on your smartphone, a quick scan of a bar code or a couple of clicks on your home computer, Food Scores can compare dozens of products and find out which ones get EWG’s best ratings.

And there really are differences. Across the universe of products in EWG’s Food Scores, 58 percent contain added sugar. By querying Food Scores, you can find those that have the least.

Some 46 percent have added artificial or natural “flavors.” What exactly is in these flavor mixtures, no one outside the manufacturer knows for sure. Even government scientists and regulators must often guess.

In virtually every food category, the scores for individual products run the gamut. You can find crackers that get a top score of 1.0 and others with a lowly 10.0. Same for cheese, seafood, cereals and so on.

Certified organic foods get a boost in our scoring system because organic products cannot be grown with help from toxic pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics, and because only a small fraction of the thousands of synthetic ingredients and additives used in conventional food are legal for organic. Consumers who pick organic food from EWG's Food Scores database are more likely to wind up with products that score better for nutrition and have fewer ingredients overall (9 ingredients vs. 14 for conventional)

But organic food does not get a free ride in Food Scores. As with conventional foods, we downgrade the scores of organic items that are high in sugar or salt or that fare poorly by EWG’s nutrition standards.

Shame on them

America’s food companies offer thousands of healthy, nutritious products. They also sell a shameful overabundance of demonstrably unhealthy junk. Items that bear no resemblance to food found in the natural world dominate entire aisles of supermarkets. As Food Scores 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. They’re flavored, colored and given texture by additives.

The average food in Food Scores:

  • has 14 ingredients;
  • has a 58 percent chance of containing added sugar (including a 22 percent chance of added corn syrup) and is 13 percent sugar by weight;
  • has a 46 percent chance of containing artificial or natural “flavor” and a 14 percent chance of artificial coloring;
  • has a serving size of 80 grams packing 121 calories;
  • has 446 milligrams of salt per 100 grams. For some foods, that amounts to 30 percent of the daily salt intake recommended by the Institute of Medicine, and that’s in a single serving.

Entire food categories have high percentages of substances that, on health grounds, EWG’s Food Score researchers have designated to be of “higher concern” or “moderate concern.” These can be worrisome food preservatives or additives. Or they can be contaminants that find their way into food from environmental pollution or packaging. Among the contaminants of heightened concern are mercury, arsenic, BPA (bisphenol A, a synthetic sex hormone and plastic component) and other industrial chemicals that linger decades in air, water and soil.

A few categories that stand out are:

  • meat products — 52 percent contain ingredients of higher concern; 54 percent have ingredients of moderate concern;
  • stuffing — 39 percent contain ingredients of higher concern; 28 percent, moderate concern;
  • cold cereals — 32 percent contain ingredients of higher concern; 24 percent, moderate concern.

Food Scores takes direct aim at excessive sugar that manufacturers irresponsibly add to nearly every category of supermarket foods.

Kid’s cereals are particularly notorious for added sugar. As EWG reported in 2011, a single cup of three brands of cereal aimed at children contained more sugar than a Twinkie, and 44 brands had more sugar than three Chips Ahoy! cookies. Just check Food Scores to see which ones are highest in sugar — and not so good for your child.

Many people think that granola and trail mix bars are a quick, healthy choice for themselves and their kids. Think again. No less than 91 percent contain added sugar. In some, almost of a third of the bar’s weight is sugar. The Food Scores database lets you quickly find out which ones.

Other food categories likely to have high percentages of added sugar include:

  • stuffing mixes — 100 percent
  • stuffing — 96 percent
  • deli meats — 74 percent to 98 percent, depending on the type
  • salad dressings — 86 percent
  • peanut butter and other nut butters — 68 percent
  • crackers — 63 percent.

Make Food Scores your “brand”

So you found a product with a great score produced by a brand you recognized. That might tempt you to reach automatically for other products by the same brand, thinking they’re going to rate highly, too. Not necessarily. A quick check of EWG’s Food Scores database shows that many brands make some products that score very well but others whose scores might give you pause.

Let me give you a just a few very specific examples of how you can use the Food Scores database to make smarter choices at the store. Remember, the scoring system goes from 1 (best) to 10 (worst).

Would you rather buy a Sage Valley granola bar that scores 2.0 because it’s high in protein and naturally occurring fiber — or a ShopRite version that gets a 10 because it’s 29 percent sugar by weight and has more than 50 ingredients, including an additive that raises a potential health concern?

Would you rather buy a bag of Full Circle Tortilla Chips that scores a low 3.5, is certified organic, has no ingredient concerns and no artificial ingredients - or a bag of Bugles Original corn chips that gets a 10 because it has high levels of saturated fat, 21 percent of a full day’s recommended salt intake and a worrisome additive? 

Do you want to avoid preservatives? Use Food Scores to check your meat choices carefully, because 61 percent of the meats in the database contain a preservative ingredient.

Packaged meats generally score poorly in the ratings, in part because the scoring system penalizes the use of antibiotics and hormones. As EWG reported last year, antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing microbes are showing up in high numbers in American supermarkets, linked to the conventional agricultural practice of dosing poultry and livestock that aren’t sick with antibiotics. The proliferation of so-called “superbugs” has spawned a global crisis in public health and triggered U.S. government action to discourage meat producers from giving antimicrobials to well animals to hasten growth and to keep those raised in dirty, overcrowded conditions from getting sick.

Because EWG’s Food Scores is built on data gathered by LabelINSIGHT®, which provides details on packaged foods that carry a barcode, you will see packages of spinach in the database but not the loose spinach that you may find elsewhere in the produce aisle. Similarly, you will find packaged chicken breasts sold by national or regional brands, but you won’t find chicken breasts cut up by your grocery store’s butcher.

EWG’s Food Scores is especially useful for all those aisles of packaged, plastic-wrapped, canned and frozen items. Americans have plenty of choices. We’d like to help you make good ones.


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