One of the interesting sessions here at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference in Denver hosted a panel of 3 experts who presented their views on what the rating systems are, why and how they were created, and how they will improve nutrition.
First up was Susan Crockett, PhD, RD, FADA, who for the last 10 years has been with General Mills. She presented the Smart Choices program of Fruit Loop infamy, and addressed the specific backlash against pre-sweetened cereal. In her attempt to justify the benchmark that allows such a culinary and nutrition horror to be considered a smart choice, Dr. Crocket first provided a background on how General Mills is committed to health and nutrition. She then showed that the Smart Choice panel was composed of both industry and academic experts, and lastly dug deep into the numbers to show how the benchmark for cereals was chosen.
Let us say that we commend General Mills that contribute 5% of pretax profit to nutrition and wellness programs. That was about $80M last year. But let’s not forget that this is a huge profit driven enterprise. The company and its peers has seen consumer confusion regarding nutrition labels and decided to handle it as a business opportunity. Working with “non-industry” experts is a way to lend credibility to the program. However, many experts are affiliated in some way or another with the industry.
As to sugar in cereal – the Smart Choices panel took a recommendation for 10% of daily calories from added sugar. In a 2000 calorie a day diet, that means 200 calories. They divided the 200 calories into 4 eating events of 50 calories. 12 grams of sugar, which is what you’ll find in Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, and others, add up to 48 calories per serving. And that, by their book is a Smart Choice. Wonderful, no?
We were left with some hope, as Dr. Crocket said that Smart Choices is continually evolving, and that with time benchmarks will be adapted to feedback from the field.
Next speaker was Annette Maggi, MS, RD, LD, FADA from NuVal. Maggi is the director of the business arm of NuVal, which licenses its 1-100 rating system to supermarkets for display on shelf tags. The NuVal system was not funded by the industry, rather by a group of scientists with a stated goal of becoming a nutrition GPS at the supermarket. The idea is to tag every single product in the supermarket with a score. That way, in the supermarket, people can compare products within a category.
So far 33,000 products have been scored. In an earlier talk we had with Prof. Keith Ayoob, of the Nuval Scientific board, he said that the group was working on rating over 100,000 items in supermarkets. The Nuval algorithm is quite complex when compared to Smart Choices, with hundreds of factors taken into consideration for each product.
Without referring specifically to Smart Choices, Maggi stated that one of the clear advantages of NuVal was its independence. A Kraft PR spokesperson tried to refute that statement in the ensuing Q&A by mentioning that the wife of one of the NuVal board members has a conflict of interest.
Last to present was Susan Moores, MS, RD who does not represent any rating system, but has been working with grocers on a variety of health and nutrition issues over the years. She provided an interesting viewpoint whose main message was stop looking for the numbers and the stickers, focus on the food: “A number will not put a meal on the table”.
Moores said that the nutrition labels have had an effect on industry. Food manufactures have reformulated products to get better scores. For example, the notorious Froot Loops lowered sugar by one gram and upped fiber by one gram. Supermarkets who adopt one system or other are able to differentiate themselves.
Mostly though, these programs have created controversy and chaos. And wherever there is a mess, there’s an opportunity for dietitians to help their clients with guidance and sound advice.
The session was very informative, but did not provide any substantially new information. Our position is that any industry funded rating system is inherently flawed because of the direct conflict of interest between companies’ need to sell more processed food to make more money, and consumers’ need to get away from these types of foods.
What to do at the supermarket:
Skip the health claims, benchmarks, and other marketing tricks. Learn to read a nutrition panel and familiarize yourself with ingredients to watch out for in the ingredient list. When sugar is the first ingredient in a cereal, that is not a smart choice, no matter how many PhDs in the room will tell you it is.
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