Will 'Smart Choice' Label Mean Healthy Shopping?

Unveiled Monday at the American Dietetic Association's Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in Chicago, the system first eliminates foods from consideration based on negative nutrients -- including total fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol -- and then looks at those that provide high levels of positive nutrients -- fiber, vitamins and minerals.

A total of 18 different product categories would be covered.

"This is clearly going to be educating people and driving active progress in the marketplace to encourage consumers to improve their diets," Balentine said. "We encourage and invite the rest of the industry to join and participate in this program."

But will other companies within the industry adopt Smart Choices? Those not involved with its development would most likely be required to "buy in" to the system in order to garner the rights to use the Smart Choices logo. Balentine said that the buy-in for companies not involved in the Roundtable "is still being worked out," but he added that "the cost tends to be minimal."

Still, Jacobson is worried.

"Buying in might be expensive for small companies," he said. "If it costs, for example, $5,000 for a particular product, and a company has 20 products that qualify, I think a small company would have a tough time coughing up the money."

An Adequate System?

The foods that would qualify as healthy under the system provide even more ground for debate amongst nutritionists.

For example, as Jacobson cited in his resignation letter from the Roundtable, breakfast cereals could contain up to 12 grams of added sugars per serving and still be qualified as healthy under the Smart Choices program. This means that offerings, such as General Mills' Reese's Puffs, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Kellogg's Cocoa Krispies and Post's Fruity Pebbles -- all of whose sugar content is 40 percent or more -- would qualify for the Smart Choices logo.

Moreover, Jacobson noted in his letter that his "paramount concern is that the 'better for you' approach was not tested against other approaches."

These other approaches include the "Guiding Stars" program adopted by grocery giants Hannaford Bros. and Food Lion; Katz's rating system that assigns a health score of 0 to 100 for almost all foods; and the British government proposal involving red, yellow and green "traffic lights" that signify the levels of saturated fat, sodium and other nutrients.

Jacobson says he urged the Roundtable to test and compare the Smart Choices system with these others, but his suggestion was rejected. The result is a binary system that creates only two groups of foods -- those which qualify for the label, and those that do not.

"It is still a system that is limited to 'makes the cut' or 'does not,' as if a food supply of hundreds of thousands of foods -- and an average supermarket inventory for over 40,000 -- can be adequately described in a yes/no fashion," he said.

"In the era of personalized medicine, it is shocking that food companies seem to think that there is a single set of 'smart choices' that is applicable across the entire population," agrees Dr. Terry Maratos-Flier, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "Pharmacology companies are thinking about how to best prescribe for the individual, and the food industry is trying to find a 'one size fits all' simplistic prescription."

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