Using EWG Food Scores to navigate plant-based meats and how to swap in plants

EWG presents a series of guest articles by Culinary Nutritionist and Author of “What the Fork Are You Eating?” Stefanie Sacks exploring the link between a healthier diet and a healthier environment while offering straightforward advice and encouragement to anyone looking to improve their nutrition and protect the planet.

Several years ago, EWG asked me to review the beta version of an app being developed to give shoppers valuable intel about their food choices. To say I was eager for this opportunity is an understatement. Since 1999, I had been combing grocery store aisles, offering “shopping education” – personalized tours highlighting healthier food options – to individuals and groups.

Helping others inspect ingredient labels, navigate Nutrition Facts labels, question health claims and, ultimately, understand more about the human and environmental health effects of the foods they choose was and is my schtick. But it was exhausting: Roughly 15,000 new food products appear on our grocery store shelves each year, so it was a challenge to keep up. Most people desperately needed support.

It’s a maze out there. Lots of advertising – particularly of plant-based “meat” – leads consumers to believe, as I’ve noted before, that products are healthy just because they’re made from plants. Getting important product information can make the difference between buying ultra-processed food products, and choosing healthier, minimally processed, plant-based food instead.

I was elated to see something that gives users an easy way to learn about a food product’s ingredient, nutrition and processing concerns by scanning scan its bar code. It is far superior to any nutrition database around and, most importantly, EWG understands that a healthy food choice was not just about calories, salt, fat and sugar – something consumers have been led to believe.

EWG Food Scores

When you think about healthy food, you have to think beyond the Nutrition Facts panel.

Navigating plant-based ‘meat’

EWG’s Food Scores is a brilliant solution.

It rates more than 80,000 products from high to low on nutrition (sodium, cholesterol and simple carbs), ingredients (pesticides, food additives and more) and processing (how food production affects human and environmental health).

On the Food Scores landing page, you’ll find a color continuum that goes from green to orange to red, which corresponds to ratings 1.0, or best, to 10.0, or worst.

How to navigate Food Scores: 

On your computer

  • Go to the Food Scores home page.
  • Click on the “Food” section.
  • Scroll down to “Tofu and Meat Alternatives.”
  • Find your product and get more information about it.

On your phone at the grocery store

  • Go to the refrigerated or frozen departments of the store, where most of the plant protein alternatives are.
  • Open the app.
  • Pick a product to find out more about it then, pressing the green button at the bottom or center of your phone, scan its bar code.
  • Get more information about your options.

Here’s an example: Plain tofu and any whole legume or nut-based product score between 1.0 and 2.0, but most multi-ingredient meat alternatives score 5.0 or above. Buyer beware! Many of the products on grocery store shelves today are ultra-processed.

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Five ways to swap meat for plants

I’m not a fan of ultra-processed food, including meat alternatives, but I try to keep an open mind by sampling new products. Overall, the landscape is unimpressive, and those looking to transition to a more plant-centered regimen are usually destined for a food lifestyle that may seem healthy but might not be. Anything highly processed, even if it’s made with plants, is not ideal. 

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate technological advancements that allow passionate people to create animal protein alternatives that address our human and environmental health conundrums. Yet I believe some consumers are being misled into believing all plant proteins that have morphed into meat replacements are created equal. And they are not.

If you want to swap meat for plant-based foods, legumes (like lentils, garbanzo beans, black beans, etc.), tofu and tempeh as great go-tos.  Some minimally processed veggie burgers are made with love instead of in a lab, including Sunshine Burgers and many of Dr. Praeger’s burger varieties. Just keep in mind that your best food product options are those with the fewest ingredients, all from fresh whole foods.

In addition, here are five creative ways to enjoy those meaty flavors without the flesh.


A traditional BLT is made with bacon, which gives this crowd-pleaser a savory, rich and meaty taste. What most people don’t know is that “savory, rich and meaty” defines a fifth taste category called “umami,” which can also be satisfied with plant-based ingredients. So instead of a BLT, how about the PALT: portobello, avocado, lettuce and tomato (see recipe below).



Vegetable chili is now as common as the meat variety. Still, I appreciate that the veggie version just doesn’t do it for some people – the mouth-feel and flavor from meat is absent. If that’s true for you, try crumbling tempeh (whole fermented soy beans) in chili as your meat swap. It’s a far better option than ultra-processed textured vegetable protein, also commonly called TVP. (This recipe from Food 52 is a great starting point. 


Tempeh is my meat swap here, too. This recipe from the Minimalist Baker is nutritious and delicious. To simplify this and other recipes calling for canned tomatoes and tomato paste, I often use my favorite jar of sauce, which can be found, reasonably priced, at Target and Costco. 

The burger

Although there are many imitation meat options on the market today that may satisfy the mainstream, I aim to ensure that everything, or almost everything, eaten in my home is nutrient dense and health supportive. When making my own veggie burger, this great recipe, Easy Black Bean Burger by Love & Lemons, is my go-to. 

The dog

My sweet maternal Nana loved hot dogs. Growing up outside New York City meant I took frequent trips into the city with her, and she was a regular at the stands in and around Central Park, always ordering this ultra-processed meat with mustard, onions and sweet relish.

As a child, I tried a hot dog or two, but my favorite part was always the mustard and warm sauerkraut.

I learned to make my own hot dog in the 1980s, using tofu cut into chunky strips, then marinating it in soy sauce, sesame oil and sauerkraut, with the juice. Cook it in a small pot, as the heating makes this concoction so delicious, and serve simply on a warm bun with brown mustard. it’s delicious. This recipe by She Likes Food feels similar.

Transitioning what and how we eat is tough stuff. But I urge you to reach beyond your comfort zone to try something new. You may just like it!

Next steps? 

  1. Download EWG’s Healthy Living app (via Apple or via Google) and start to explore.
  2. Accept some suggested swaps.
  3. Check out these protein rich yet meatless recipes.
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