The Environmental Working Group works hard, spending its time and resources researching products and releasing its findings to the public for free. Each year EWG puts out guides like the 2015 Sunscreen Guide to help consumers make wiser, healthier choices.

EWG also has an app that helps consumers make choices about processed foods at the grocery store. The EWG Food Scores app is a free, in-depth tool that looks at more than 80,000 grocery store foods, scoring them on nutrition, ingredients and processing. It combines the information in those three categories and creates a score from one to 10 for each product, one being the best.

Some people eat as little processed foods as possible, and that’s admirable. They shop the perimeter of the grocery store, visit farmers markets as frequently as possible, and grow their own food. Then there are those of us who would love to do that in an ideal world, but in reality, we end up buying some processed foods as well as whole foods for a variety of reasons.

As EWG’s Renee Sharp says in the video, “We all know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and the database is designed to guide people to those foods. But we also know that we eat tortilla chips, we eat potato chips — maybe more than we should. So we also wanted to design a tool that would help people find the better food in whatever food category interested them.”

In the app, you can look up a food by a specific manufacturer or by a category. I had a vanilla yogurt today for lunch, so I’m going to use vanilla yogurt as an example. Yogurt companies market their product as a health food, but many people now realize that sometimes there’s as much sugar in a serving of yogurt as there is in a serving of ice cream, and many of them contain artificial flavors and dyes. 

When I type “vanilla yogurt” into the app on my iPad and hit search, it comes up with dozens of yogurts, which I filtered by score. When I did that, I found that Stonyfield Organic, Greek Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt has the best score: 1.1. I also gave myself a pat on the back because the yogurt I ate for lunch, Siggi’s Non Fat Vanilla Yogurt was the second best rated yogurt with a 2.0 rating.

I think Siggi’s is pretty healthy, and I wondered why it received a two instead of a one. When I clicked on the Siggi’s yogurt, I saw that EWG has two minor concerns with this yogurt. The first is that it’s not certified organic. The second is that “antibiotics were likely used in production of the dairy ingredients in this product.”

However, if I had a Dannon Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt, I would have seen that EWG gave it a score of five. Concerns with this yogurt include not being organic, food additives, antibiotics, hormones, sugar and a non-specific “flavor” ingredient.

The app lets you drill down, too. Let’s use another example — a processed food I buy frequently, Garden of Eatin’ Corn Tortilla Chips. Tortilla chips are a guilty pleasure of mine, even if they are dipped in healthy foods like homemade salsa or guacamole. EWG isn’t concerned about the nutrition or ingredients in this particular brand of chip, but it has a moderate level of concern when it come to the processing. I can click on the processing icon to drill down and find that “products with moderate and high processing concerns generally have more artificial ingredients, more ingredients that have been significantly modified form whole foods, and more ingredients overall.”

Now I have a decision to make. These chips scored a respectable 2.8, but there are tortilla chips with better scores. Next time I’m at the grocery store, I can compare my usual Garden of Eatin’ chips with the higher scored chips to see if I want to trade up.

And that’s what the folks at EWG hope people who use this app will do — trade up to better versions of the processed foods they do eat.

The EWG Food Scores app is available for iOS and Android devices and is free to download and use. The database is also available on EWG's website, no app needed. EWG does accept donations to help fund its work, but no donation is necessary to access any of the information contained in the app. For more information on how to best use the app, check out the User's Guide to EWG's Food Scores

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.