When “Smart” Food Choices Aren’t So Smart

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Check this out: According to certain food industry standards, Froot Loops Cereal is considered a “Smart Choice” for consumers.  Predictably, many nutritionists beg to differ. The New York Times published a great piece about the subject in a recent investigation of the Smart Choice label.

So what is a Smart Choice label?

The Smart Choice label contains a big green checkmark and lists the number of calories per serving and servings per container in a package. It lets customers know what foods have met certain nutritional standards. According to WebMD, there are two ways to qualify. Foods must either 1) limit total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars and sodium, while including vitamins, calcium, fiber and other nutrients, or 2) they must contain fruits, vegetables, whole grains or low-fat or fat-free dairy. Unfortunately, the amounts of these ingredients required to qualify are not disclosed.

Butter as Food?

One issue that might give consumers pause is that the Smart Choices labeling program was developed by scientists, health and nutrition specialists who may not have been completely impartial. The Times quoted one member of the advisery panel that developed the Smart Choice criteria. “It was paid for by industry and when industry put down its foot and said this is what we’re doing, that was it, end of story,” said Michael Jacobson, who is also executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He eventually resigned from the panel. 

Digging a little deeper on the program’s Web site reveals that while fruits and vegetables, meat alternatives and bottled water get the Smart Choice label, so are fats, oils, spreads and butter, among other questionable choices. Even Kraft Macaroni and Cheese qualifies as a Smart Choice under the program.


Reading Labels

The reality is that even many health-conscious consumers don’t really scrutinizing every ingredient on a packaged food product’s ingredients list. In fact, the act of reading labels at all has become less common, especially among consumers younger than 35 years old, according to the FDA.

A green checkmark noting that a food is relatively helpful and is, at least in theory, a straightforward, simple way to make consumers more aware of the foods they eat, assuming it’s a tool that can be trusted.

But even the FDA, which did not play a part in the program’s development, seems wary of the Smart Choices designations.

"...We will need to monitor and evaluate the products as they appear and their effect on consumers' food choices and perceptions,” wrote Michael Taylor, FDA Senior Advisor for Food Safety in a letter to Sarah Krol, general manager of the Smart Choices Program. "FDA and [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] would be concerned if any ... labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” the agency wrote.

The program does allow for some changes in what constitutes a smart choice, however.  "The nutrition criteria are flexible and adaptable – allowing for updates as consensus science shifts and new dietary guidelines and other sources of authoritative guidance are released,” according to Smart Choice program literature.

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