Environmental Group to Rate the Safety of 10,000 Foods

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Choosing the most healthful foods for your family is no easy task. You can try looking at products’ ingredients lists, but who can tell whether things like xanthan gum, L-cysteine or Polydimethylsiloxane are safe to eat?

To help consumers make informed decisions, the environmental health advocacy and research group Environmental Working Group (EWG) says it will soon launch a food-safety database, covering more than 10,000 supermarket items — every edible product from fresh produce and fruit juice to frozen pizza. The project, which is too new to have a name yet, will be rolled out in the first half of 2012, EWG tells Healthland exclusively, and will rate food items based on nutrition content as well as safety — accounting for potentially allergic or harmful ingredients, as well as how much pesticide residue they carry and whether they contain industrial contaminants or environmental pollutants.

“We’ll scan dozens of hazard, testing and regulatory databases to learn which ingredients may pose health risks — everything from allergies to heart disease, cancer and diabetes — and which foods are likely to be laced with industrial contaminants and pesticides,” says Alex Formuzis, vice president for media relations at EWG.

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The new database is modeled on EWG’s well-known Skin Deep safety ratings of 69,000 cosmetic products. Users of Skin Deep can see at a glance whether products contain unwanted fragrances that can trigger allergy, or have endocrine-disrupting compounds such as phthalates and parabens and chemicals like retinyl palmitate, which the National Toxicology Program has linked with skin tumors. The database is updated as new science emerges and will shortly have a mobile app for smartphones.

Skin Deep gives each item a safety score (and color), based on how many potentially dangerous ingredients it has, as well as the quality of the data used to determine its safety. Want to know how safe your kids’ toothpaste is? Tom’s of Maine gets a score of 0 (a stellar “green” score), while Crest pulls a score of 3 (a moderate “orange” score).

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The new food-safety ratings may also use numbers and colors. But like the cosmetics database, the forthcoming ratings will have some limitations — namely that while they will list specific ingredients that have been associated with health hazards, they cannot conclusively say whether consumption of products containing said ingredients will necessarily lead to health problems. Ultimately, your health risks will depend on your individual levels of exposure and susceptibility.

Further, the food-safety ratings will be based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data and company-provided information, as well as other government sources like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) databases of carcinogens, rather than independent lab testing.

Still, EWG thinks its food-safety ratings will do more to clarify than to confuse. At the very least, the group says, its ratings will provide consumers with more information than they had before. “Many foods contain artificial dyes, preservatives and other ingredients that aren’t really food,” said Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president of research who was also behind Skin Deep. “We realized that most shoppers have no information on the safety of these ingredients and, as with cosmetics, the government does not make this information easy to find. So, just as we did with our Skin Deep cosmetic safety database, we decided to fill this gap with a useful, online tool for food, so shoppers can make sure they’re eating foods that are safe and healthy.”

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.