The Breakfast Battle: Consumers May Not Be Making Smart Choices After All

FDA is analyzing misleading food stickers, hoping to simplify labeling system.

October 21, 2009, 8:09 AM

Oct. 21, 2009— -- It's not unusual for a box of cereal to bear labels touting numerous health benefits. Pick up a box of Cocoa Puffs, and General Mills says you've made a healthy choice. Kellogg's Froot Loops also qualifies for a Smart Choices label.

But the ubiquitous label -- a white sticker with a green check mark -- is increasingly appearing on products that critics say are not so nutritionally smart.

Smart Choices is one of the many programs developed by grocery stores, scientists, health organizations and manufacturers themselves to steer health-conscious shoppers to supposedly nutritional products. But the government is stepping in and cracking down, saying the different systems are too confusing.

The Food and Drug Administration says it will analyze labels to make sure they are not misleading and is hoping to develop a nutritional gold standard for products that manufacturers want to label as healthy.

That may not be such a bad move, some experts say.

"When you have 40 percent sugar, can you imagine that? Half the box with grain and half of the box with sugar, that's not such a smart choice," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said of Froot Loops.

When contacted by ABC News, Kellogg's deferred to a statement by the Smart Choices Program defending the labeling.

The program "was developed during an open and lengthy collaborative process that included some of the most experienced and accomplished professionals in nutrition science," Mike Hughes, chairman of the Smart Choices Program, said in the statement, adding that it "complies with all U.S. laws and regulations."

Still, Jacobson's Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group wants the FDA to implement a national standard for labeling on the front of packages and even urged lawmakers on Capitol Hill to provide funding to research a system.

It's not just cereals that mislead consumers, Jacobson said. He also pointed to Kraft's Strawberry Bagelful, which he said is stuffed with cream cheese and strawberry puree sweetened with sugar and colored with red dye. It also has a Smart Choices label.

"You have these conflicting systems and some of them are flawed; that not so healthy foods get the symbol," he said.

It is a system that concerns the FDA, too, and the agency is warning food companies that it will analyze labels to make sure they are not misdirecting consumers.

"It is thus essential that both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading," FDA director Barbara O. Schneeman wrote recently in a letter to the industry. "The agency is currently analyzing FOP [front-of-package] labels that appear to be misleading."

While the labels are voluntary and developed by the industry, they are subject to federal guidelines under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which prohibits "false or misleading claims and restrict[s] nutrient content claims to those defined in FDA regulations."

FDA to Go After Nutritional Labels

The FDA also wants to develop a nutritional criteria that manufacturers would have to meet before slapping labels on boxes, in the hopes of simplifying the system. It may also push for one simple label that everyone would have to use.

"Research suggests that the proliferation of divergent FOP approaches is likely to be confusing to consumers and ultimately counterproductive," Schneeman wrote.

But proponents of the Smart Choices label say the ranking system is valid.

"Our program is entirely transparent. The criteria have been published and available to all Americans," Richard Kahn, a Smart Choices board member and former chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetic Association, told ABC News. "The whole process took about two years to develop. The FDA was actually at the table at virtually all the meetings."

The board is open to a public review of the system and how it was developed, Kahn said, adding that it's built on a "solid scientific basis."

"It's not the perfect program but it's a program that's going to move America," he said. "There's nothing about these criteria that are not grounded in science."

Manufacturers say they will work with the FDA to research and develop a more helpful system.

"Our goal at Kraft Foods is to give consumers clear information," the company said in a statement. "That's why we support a common approach to front-of-package labeling. We look forward to continuing to work with FDA to help consumers make informed food choices."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association echoed similar sentiments.

"Manufacturers have already introduced or reformulated over 10,000 products to reduce calories, sugar, sodium, fat and trans fat or to enhance their nutritional profile, such as with the addition of whole grains or minerals," the association said in a statement. "This initiative, along with the many valuable programs and initiatives that are underway, can serve as another important step in improving the health and wellness of the American public."

General Mills declined to comment when contacted by ABC News, referring instead to the statement by the Smart Choices Program.

ABC News' Ben Krolowitz contributed to this report.

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