HowGood is our Research?
This month, we decided to share with you exactly how we go about researching the goodness of food products. With over 60 industry-specific metrics used to determine the sustainability of everything from a tomato to a frozen dinner entree, there’s a lot of information and hard work that goes into our ratings.
We interviewed Arthur Gillett, HowGood’s Head of Research, to get an in-depth look at the work he and his team are doing- and along the way, we’ll learn what some of his favorite sustainable products are, shocking research finds, and how consumers can take small steps to shop better.
You’ve been researching food products for HowGood for seven years. How did you originally determine what metrics should be used to determine the goodness of a food product?
There are two major aspects to which indicators make it into our metrics: importance and impact. The importance of an indicator is determined by our Subject Matter Experts (SME’s). SME’s, like labor experts and environmental scientists, know how an industry works and what are the relevant details. They tell us which measures of impact are relevant and interesting and which are just good marketing. Our role is to understand and balance all of the different outlooks. For example, while we reward dairy farmers for committing to not using hormones, doing the same for poultry would make little sense, as hormone usage on poultry is illegal anyway.
For the impact, we actually measure how much products’ ratings change with the inclusion of new indicators. We are constantly checking for double impacts. In the same dairy industry, use of hormones will likely indicate grainfed cows, but grainfed cows does not indicate use of hormones. Taking into account the impact of each piece of data allows us to make sure our ratings don’t get overweighted towards one concern, but actually end up representing the “goodness” of a company. With our balanced ratings, anyone can confidently make a purchase knowing that if they knew everything about that company and product, the HowGood rating would match up with whether they’d really want it.
Can you walk us through the research process that you would use if you were to rate a new product? What’s the first step that the research team usually takes?
Most of our time goes into researching the overall industries and sub-industries that make our food. We call these our benchmarks. With benchmarks in hand, we have clear information on the relative impacts of the growing, processing, manufacturing, storage, distribution and disposal practices for 99% of the food consumed in America. Using the benchmarks, our first step is to rate the company that produces the product. Depending on the industry, company practices and history can make up 50% of the total rating. We rate the company on it’s labor, community, corporate and environmental history and impact before moving on evaluating the impact of the food product itself. Once the company has been evaluated, for each ingredient it uses in its products, we categorize the sourcing standards, growing methods, labor standards, production methods, animal husbandry, distribution needs and storage needs with respect to the geographic distribution of each of those activities. Companies are required to demonstrate meeting our standards. If they can’t show it, we don’t give them the benefit of the doubt.
The “goodness” of food production and manufacturing is malleable, and processes that were once deemed acceptable might be seen as harmful over time. Has there been a specific instance in which you’ve had to go back to the drawing board to take such a change into account?
We do make changes when one of our experts puts forth a convincing argument. Last year, we marginally increased the impact rating of palm oil and saw the change negatively impact the rating of thousands of products in our test environment that had barely gotten a “Good” rating. Implementing that change in our live system was difficult and necessary, and anytime we can be convinced of the value of a change we will make it across the whole system.
As you’ve been researching, have you been surprised by a product’s rating? For example, was there a food that you were convinced would be highly rated, and then it turned out it wasn’t so good? Or vice-versa?
Well made products owned by some of the least sustainable companies are generally the surprises- like General Mills products. They aren’t always the most sustainable, but the company is so good to it’s employees that it eke’s out some surprising scores. Though I haven’t always agreed with their politics, and I have been sad to see some of the independent producers get bought, they take care of their employees very well. If General Mills came to terms with the impact of some of their growing practices and minimized the processing in their least sustainable products, they could have a very big positive impact.
What’s the most rewarding part of researching food for a living?
The best part, by far, is living the knowledge I’ve gained. As I’ve studied food, I’ve been drawn to the best methods to the extent that I began to try them out on my own. My own veggie patch grows every year, and I know the benefits of small scale agriculture intimately. Without the research I would never have understood either the viability or the richness of playing a major role in my own food chain.
What’s the easiest switch someone can make to start buying more sustainability?
Read Mark Bittman’s “The Minimalist” column in the NYTimes. Barring that: Learn to read the ingredients. If you can’t pronounce them, don’t buy it. I know it’s cliche, but it’s really the most impactful first step you can take. Highly processed ingredients are grown with the most intensive methods, processed most intensively, and provide cover for the high impact processing of other ingredients. Plus they are generally not the healthiest option.
Do you have any favorite products? Can you share them with us?
I love Ronnybrook milk. They’re not organic, but it’s great milk from well-treated cows.