Starting next summer, grocery shoppers may have a simple way to pick out the healthier foods on local supermarket shelves.
A group of food distributors and manufacturers, along with health and nutrition advocates this week announced a plan to introduce a universal nutritional ranking system that purports to identify the healthiest foods for consumers with a logo that appears on the front of food packaging.
The system, known as The Smart Choices Program, aims to be the first industry-wide front-of-packaging initiative to identify healthy food choices.
Proponents say it stands apart from existing nutrition labeling in that it directly identifies the most nutritious foods, making it easier for consumers to make healthy choices at a glance.
But the plan has sparked debate among health and nutrition experts over whether it is really the best approach to encourage consumers to make healthier choices.
With major food industry players involved -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg, ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, Unilever and Wal-Mart, to be specific -- it is likely that the new logos will be sprinkled amongst most, if not all, categories of food found in grocery store aisles.
"Having a common, industry-wide front-of-package nutrition symbol makes it much easier for consumers ... to build better diets," said Doug Balentine, nutrition sciences director for Unilever in the Americas, and one of the members of the panel that developed the system.
However, the fact that such a widespread group of food industry giants is behind the plan has some observers concerned.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, was originally part of the panel tasked with creating the new system, but he resigned earlier this month due to concerns with the approach.
"Just adopting the first system to come along could keep out better systems," he said. "If the first system is developed by the food industry, it makes you wonder."
Some have even labeled the proposed system as little more than a marketing ploy.
"The approach was developed and selected by food manufacturers who have an intrinsic bias: they want to sell food," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center at the Yale School of Medicine and developer of the ONQI nutritional guidance system. "They are motivated to put their products in the best light possible."
On the other side of the debate are those who feel that the front-of-packaging icon offers valuable information to consumers.
"This shows that at least some companies really are listening -- and responding -- to consumer needs," said Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the UPMC Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh, who calls the system "a big step in the right direction."
"The variety of 'health' labels on food products is complicated and hard to decipher," Fernstrom says. "This empowers the consumer to make a better choice."
The Smart Choices Program represents the fruits of an effort by the Keystone Center Food and Nutrition Roundtable. The Roundtable, established in 2007, consists of representatives from food producers and distributors, consumer and health advocates, nutrition and public health experts and observers from certain federal agencies.
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."
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."
Another potential pitfall of the system is that it only indicates whether a product is healthy -- not whether it is unhealthy. Jacobson notes that this is another sign of industry involvement, noting, "Of course, no company would voluntarily put a black X on their unhealthy food."
But considering the country's current obesity epidemic -- which many would say can be at least partly blamed on unhealthy eating -- Jacobson admits that additional information may be good information.
"Despite my concerns, I think the system is good," he says. "It's better than nothing."