Six Reasons “Smart Choices” Food Labeling Won’t Help Shoppers

The “Smart Choices” front of package food labeling scheme officially launches this week. 500 Packaged foods from ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft, PepsiCo, Sun-Maid, Tyson and Unilever are already approved.

The program hopes to take nutrition confusion out of your life by presenting a simple green check mark on the front of packaged foods that have passed a nutrition benchmark.

While we applaud the initiative to simplify food nutrition information, Smart Choices has substantial drawbacks, which we outlined in the past.

Granted, there are several advantages, such as simplicity, uniformity across brands, and the front-and-center calorie information provided on some labels. However, we think that this industry backed initiative, along with fifteen others was born in a vacuum created by the lack of initiative of the FDA.

Here are six reasons why Smart Choices won’t really help shoppers.

What you need to know:

1. No Trust. Smart Choices is a program sponsored by the food industry. Food manufacturers need to show growing profits. to do that, they need to sell us more food, not less. To sell more food, we need to buy more products. We’ll buy more products that we believe are good for us. Therefore, manufacturers would like as many products as possible to be eligible for a Smart Choice seal. Thus, they will not use a benchmark that is too stringent. (See #2.). How can consumer trust the industry?

2. Lenient Benchmark. Some of the criteria chosen by the program are a bit too liberal. For example, 12 grams of sugar per serving of cereal is the equivalent of 3 teaspoons.  Yet a sugary breakfast cereal toting this amount is a Smart Choice, as long as it is fortified with vitamins and minerals. Products containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils can also qualify as a Smart Choice, despite the fact that these oils contain trans fat. To the program’s credit, the criteria is freely available to the public to see [PDF].

3. Black and white in a gray world. The Yes/No message dichotomy oversimplifies food to a point of being ineffective. If you’re standing in front of a supermarket shelf and have to choose between two similar spaghetti sauces, both with a Smart Choices seal, which is better? What about two frozen pizzas without a seal? The NuVal system (not perfect either) grades each product from 1-100, giving consumers a much better picture of each product’s relative and absolute “nutrition value”.

4. “Worse for you”. Systems such as UK’s Traffic Lights point out the bad, not just the good in a product.  A product which is low in sugar but high in saturated fat will get a “green light” for sugar, but a “red light” for the fat. The consumer gets a better picture.  A benchmark system such as Smart Choices does not point out products that may contain elements that are “worse for you”, full of sodium, sugar, and fat. No sane marketer would ever want something negative to be prominently displayed on her products. It only happens when the government thinks it’s important. Just look at the long fought battle of the cigarette industry with the FDA until cigarettes/cancer messages were placed on every pack. That will probably not happen with food, not even the lowliest junk food.

5. Not really a standard. Not all food manufacturers and retailers will join the program. There are competing initiatives vying for the same success. Guiding Stars has been in use at Hannaford Brothers Supermarkets for the last 2 years. NuVal has launched in several mid size retail chains. SuperValu has launched nutritioIQ program. How will a consumer know if a product is not a smart choice, or simply wasn’t tested by the system?

6. Different strokes for different folks. A middle aged diabetic has different dietary needs than a healthy teenager or a senior suffering from hypertension and trying to reduce sodium intake. How can the same exact products be “better for” all of them?

What to do at the supermarket:

Don’t automatically select a product because it has a Smart Choices logo on it. Read the nutrition information panel and the ingredient list to look for the hidden gems such as partially hydrogenated oils, artificial food colorings, HFCS and MSG, and other substances you don’t want to put on your table or in your mouth.

Help us test our new food comparison tool: alpha.fooducate.com

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  • Daria

    While I do believe the real initiative of these programs is to sell more product, as you do, I also believe that ultimately it is up to us consumers to change our food industry. If we stopped buying the junk food, manufacturers would stop making it.

    We have to educate ourselves on the foods that are really healthy for us instead of relying on the FDA and food manufacturers to guide our decisions! Unforuntately there are many people out there who don’t care enough about themselves to read food labels, and it doesn’t matter if you put the information right there in their faces. If they like their Twinkies they are going to keep buying them. Ultimately we can only worry about ourselves, and I’m so glad blogs like this exist to help us.

  • http://www.fooducate.com/blog staff

    We respectfully disagree with the notion that it is up to consumers to decide for themselves. Not when we are bombarded everyday with junk food at every turn, not when kids get hooked on sugar and fat from the day they are born through marketing on TV, foods, and toys.

    Finland, for example, through federal initiative, reduced the national sodium intake by 50% over the course of 25 years.

    The UK is aggressively requiring manufacturers to phase out 6 potentially unsafe food colorings.

    Generally, the EU requires a substance to be proven safe before it is allowed for use, but in the US you have to prove it’s dangerous before it’s banned.

    The government’s role is to protect it’s citizens. Ours is not doing enough to protect us from the food industry’s constant need to grow revenue.

  • Lila

    Daria: If labels are not clear how can consumers make informed choices? Try going to the supermarket with your three-year old around and take the time to look at each package front and back, compare brands, etc … please! Consumers CARE, but industry is clever: their marketing, ads, packages are all carefully studied to make you buy and the cheapest process they can use to make your food, despite the effects on your health, they’ll go for it!! Be real!

  • Brady

    This was written by a true conservative! lol…the label should meet more strict guid lines by the govenment. Is it too liberal to ask what’s in my food?

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