„But I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything.“
Food Scores, a new tool for enlightened American consumers, was released a few days ago by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Food Scores is an online service and app that provides information about food – a step towards better nutrition, according to the developers. Having analyzed over 80,000 food products in the US market for their overall qualities, the database is the most extensive of its kind. The user friendly service can break down, say, a granola bar into its individual parts and evaluate them in categories of: nutrients, ingredients and degrees of processing. It immensely simplifies the user’s ability to create quick impressions of the quality of products. Further categorization features let you refine searches if you’re looking for specific characteristics, such as gluten-free. One of the database’s special features is ranking. Food Scores labels products with numbers between 1 and 10, where 1 stands for positive products and 10 for those that are dubious. This allows all products to be compared with each other. If you like peanut butter, for example, but want one with less fat, you no longer have to inspect labels on the supermarket shelf, you can just look it up at Food Scores.
Food Scores hits the nerve of our time precisely; a time in which food scandals regularly heighten our caution and documentaries like Super Size Me, fuel the legitimate, ever-increasing suspicion towards the food industry. We no longer believe in advertising, but in facts. Few of us are granted the pleasure of eating vegetables we cultivate ourselves, which makes it even more important to know about the food we purchase. But since we don’t have the time to check every noodle for its potential harm, these kinds of databases are becoming increasingly important for the sake of transparency.
Being informed and comparing is clearly positive. But what happens when we compare everything to everything else and orient ourselves through all-encompassing rankings? Let’s look at an extreme example in Amazon. Many Amazon customers get the necessary information they need to decide on a product through customer reviews, but mostly by sales rankings. Most purchases are determined by what’s already most purchased. The process of purchasing is thereby influenced by fixed algorithms which position the products accordingly. With books, this is particularly sensitive. When people don’t know exactly what they want, browsing through a bookstore can be a way of discovering new and unknown things. Someone who doesn’t know what they want on Amazon, will usually buy more of the same – recommended items, or the same things they’ve already purchased – the interesting unknown remains undiscovered.
Rankings can therefore steer the way we consume. This raises the question: Who or what decides what deserves a 1 or 10? It is even possible to make general judgments about food? We can certainly say whether chocolate was produced fairly or not, and that a cola with less sugar is more sensible than one with more. Still, in times of coercive optimization apps, the thought of whether Food Scores might be abused by some creeps in. Food Scores is, without a doubt, a useful tool for information. But food isn’t TV; maintenance isn’t the only reason we eat. Blind faith in rankings and seals bear the risk of unlearning our trust in our own judgment of taste – that which constitutes an autonomous consumer. The important thing isn’t whether or not we use services such as Food Scores – it’s how we use them – because the joy of food shouldn’t be forgotten through the sheer counting of calories. The quality of a product is also determined by criteria that can’t be expressed in numbers and comparisons, and therefore can’t be recorded in databases. What matters in the end is using one’s own criteria for personal ranking. Sometimes peanut butter with lots of fat deserves a 1.
(By the way: Food Scores doesn’t sell anything but does link to Amazon. And: The preceding quote is from Dave Eggers’ dystopia “The Circle“.)