Guest blogger: Good Guide

As a nutrition professional who spent most of her time in graduate school studying how schools can help prevent obesity, I’m honored to be contributing to Mrs. Q’s blog. I’m sure many of her readers will agree with me when I say that the “behind the scenes” perspective provided through this blog is invaluable and frankly, unavailable elsewhere. I started following Mrs. Q back in January, and so have watched the blog evolve to cover food and nutrition issues beyond school lunch. Recently, there were two posts on corporations, one general post about Nature’s Path and another open thread inquiring which companies we trusted. Based on the comments on these posts, it’s clear that there’s a desire to support companies that are trustworthy. 
To me, this desire is a sign that we’ve begun to realize that our shopping decisions influence the marketplace. We, as consumers, can get companies to make better products by selectively purchasing products we want from corporations that represent our values. Sometimes, though, it’s incredibly challenging to figure out which companies are really reputable. The company I work for, GoodGuide, is trying to support that exact goal. Our mission is to help consumers make better purchasing decisions – better in terms of the product’s healthfulness, impact on the environment, and influence on society. 
We do this by rating a wide array of consumer products on hundreds of health, environmental, and social attributes. For food, the health scores are based primarily on the nutrition facts panel, while the environment and social scores are based on company-level data. The ratings fall on a 0-10 scale, with higher scoring products representing better purchases. Here’s an example that highlights what I mean:
GoodGuide Overall Score: 6.6 (Health: 5.6, Environment: 7.9, Social: 6.2)
GoodGuide Overall Score: 5.2 (Health: 4.8, Environment: 5.2, Social: 5.6)
From this example, you can see that the while the health scores are somewhat similar (Annie’s does slightly better because the product is certified organic by the USDA), it’s the environmental and social scores that really push up Annie’s product. You can do product comparisons in many different categories, including breakfast cereal, pasta, baby food, and 15,000 other food products. Additionally, you can how companies rate on a whole host of metrics (see how Nature’s Path does).
I will be the first to say that GoodGuide makes some necessary assumptions. (If you’re curious, I invite you to read about GoodGuide’s ratings approach and history). When it comes to food, we mostly focus on packaged goods, as these are the items with UPC codes and nutrition data that can be analyzed. We do rate fresh items when possible, and these products usually score the highest on the rating spectrum. My hope is that people will compare products between categories and realize that the more processed foods aren’t the way to go. It’s important to be realistic though – that’s not the way most Americans eat. If GoodGuide can help people make small switches, it’s the first step towards improving health and supporting companies that deserve our hard-earned money.

*** NOTE from Mrs. Q: I receive no payment for guest blogs. I like to feature people, products, and ideas that are related to food and that interest me on days that I don’t have regular content to share. ***Sheila Viswanathan, as part of GoodGuide’s Science team, focuses on rating food products and educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian. GoodGuide, based in San Francisco, California, seeks to provide authoritative information about the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies. Over 60,000 personal care products, household chemicals, toys, food, and paper products are currently rated by GoodGuide.

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15 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Good Guide

  1. Neat idea. I checked out the "best breakfasts" and it seemed to me that the social and environmental factors got a bit too much weight above the health impacts…. I'm not sure that I would agree that the sugariest organic cereal is "better" than a lower sugar non-organic choice.

  2. This is really great information –thanks for hosting this guest blog. I love the way I can compare things on their website.

  3. I agree with Lisa. I also wonder if big-business "organic" is being treated the same as what I would term "real organic". Some of the practices of the big-business organic companies are actually quite environmentally unfriendly.

  4. I'm surprised Kraft got any points at all in the Social rating above. They own Oscar Mayer and the Lunchables brand which the company heavily markets to young kids. Another reader on this blog shared that, in a chance meeting on an airline flight, a Kraft executive admitted to her that he would never let his kids eat Lunchables because they're made with such crappy ingredients. Kraft's marketing practices alone make them a big fat social zero in my opinion. I guess GoodGuide doesn't think a company's unethical marketing practices are important to its Social rating?

    Sheila, is Kraft one of GoodGuide's licensees? Is that information listed anywhere on the GoodGuide Web site?

  5. By the way, I love all the guest blogs. They give me something to read on the days that I pop in before you've posted the daily menu. They're always informative, and it's fun to hear people's opinions on nutrition. (I particularly like guest posts from people in other countries who photograph what their kids' schools serve. I think it helps us make good comparisons to the slop kids are eating in the US)

  6. Hi Kim,

    You bring up a great point regarding marketing to kids. This practice (I'd say misleading claims falls in the same bucket) should impact GoodGuide's social rating, but unfortunately, it's really difficult to characterize this for every single company out there. We're trying to find a way to incorporate CSPI's Kids Marketing report into the ratings though. There are several cases like marketing to children – If data were publicly available, we would incorporate them into the ratings. Maybe we should make a wish list so that folks know we are always looking to improve the accuracy of ratings!

    Re: licensees, we don't have a licensee arrangement with any company. We collect our data by manually scraping manufacturer websites. (I think that answers your question – let me know if it doesn't!)

  7. If Kraft tastes better it's because of the MSG. It's a taste enhancer that also happens to be an excitotoxin, capable of damaging neurons. I'd give Kraft a big fat 0 just for that. Annie's doesn't use MSG or even the "natural" alternatives like yeast extract. They cheese powder also looks pretty normal instead of florescent orange, which I count as a good thing.

  8. Very interesting post. As a public health research myself (we share an alma mater, Sheila!), I am a big proponent of using research to get good info into the hands of consumers. Still, I am a bit sad to see such a high Kraft rating and a bias towards processed foods.

    BTW my kids can't stand the Kraft after years of Annie's, so I think taste preferences are adaptable. (The older ones actually won't eat it anymore considering it "baby food", so don't be afraid to drop it from rotation as they get older!)

  9. Thanks for the additional info, Sheila. Under "About Us" your Web site states that,

    "….The company earns revenue from its consumer-facing operations (a small percent of the sales price of products purchased online at affiliated ecommerce sites like Amazon) and from a suite of sustainability information products that it licenses to product manufacturers and major retailers…."

    That's what prompted my question about Kraft being a licensee. You seem to have misunderstood my question. I am not asking whether GoodGuide is a licensee of Kraft or any other company. I'd like to know whether Kraft is a licensee of GoodGuide or any of GoodGuide's affiliated entities.

  10. Ah, thanks for the clarification. Being on the Science team, I think about licensing in terms of acquiring data! To answer your question, Kraft is currently not a licensee of our sustainability information products.

  11. Thanks again, Sheila! I very much appreciate your efforts to get that info. I guess it's not surprising that they haven't chosen to do that.

    If you could find a way to incorporate CSPI findings into your Social ratings, I think that would be wonderful! Maybe the FTC could be another source, but I would imagine many people in your company have explored that route as well. I think you guys are on the right track but you have a very steep road ahead of you. You guys have to be like The Little Train That Could ("I think I can. I think I can.") I wish you great success in your work.

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