Froot Loops.

Cocoa Krispees.


Do these seem like smart choices to you? Well, if you let a new food-labeling program called Smart Choices do your thinking for you, you might think they are perfectly fine choices to feed your family every day.

I’ve been reading with interest about this new food-labeling program. The New York Times reports that many nutritionists are surprised that the new green check mark that indicates a “smart choice” will be showing up on sugary cereals.

“These are horrible choices,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health.

He said the criteria used by the Smart Choices Program were seriously flawed, allowing less healthy products, like sweet cereals and heavily salted packaged meals, to win its seal of approval. “It’s a blatant failure of this system and it makes it, I’m afraid, not credible,” Mr. Willett said.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture seem skeptical of the program. The agencies sent a letter to the Smart Choice program letting the manager’s of the program know that it would be monitored to see how it affects consumers’ choices.

Marion Nestle in her Food Politics blog has weighed in quite heavily about the Smart Choices program questioning everything from the conflict of interest of her colleagues who are involved in the program to the fact that the program actually lowers its own standards when it comes to sugary cereals.

While the NYT piece and Marion Nestle’s blog have been informative reading, I’ve found the most interesting reading on the Smart Choices website itself. Specifically, the pitch given to consumers.

No matter where you shop or what brands you buy - the Smart Choices Program™ provides simple, front-of-pack nutrition guidance to help you make smarter food and beverage choices. The program is designed to fit how you shop in the store and works within product categories -- from beverages to meats -- to highlight those products that meet strict nutrition criteria. Since a healthy diet starts with fresh fruits and vegetables, they automatically qualify for the program.
My thoughts on their pitch:
  • “Simple, front-of-pack nutrition guidance” – I’ve said it before. A box has six sides. To really figure out what’s in a food and whether it’s something you want to feed yourself and your family, you need to look at all sides of the box. Don’t let someone else do your thinking for you.
  • “This program is designed to fit how you shop.” I suppose the Smart Choices program wants to make it easier for us to just breeze down the isles without thinking. I know we are all busy. I know that grocery shopping is a chore (believe me I know). I know that many of us are taking children to the store with us and taking the time to look at packaging information means giving your little one a chance to pull things off of the shelves behind you. Still, we need to do it ourselves – not leave it up to a program that charges companies like Kellogg’s up to $100,000 a year (as per the NYT piece) to put a check mark on a box. 
  • “Highlight those products that meet strict nutrition criteria.” Strict - unless there is too much sugar in the Froot Loops. Then they’ll relax those standards (as per Food Politics) so they can get up to $100,000 a year from Kellogg’s.
  • “Since a healthy diet starts with fresh fruits and vegetables, they automatically qualify for the program.” Yet, a look at their product search finds that no fresh fruits or vegetables are actually listed. Some frozen vegetables and some dried fruits are, but no fresh. I suppose no fresh fruit or vegetable producers are willing to pay the money to have their products labeled a “smart choice.” I can’t blame them.
There can be no substitution for thinking for yourself when it comes to making food choices. Some of the items that already carry the Smart Choices label are foods that I buy. Raisins? I buy them. Canola oil? I buy that. Maybe not from the manufacturer that has paid to have the green check on the package, but I choose canola oil. I choose it because I’ve decided, based on what I know, it’s a good choice. I don’t blindly choose it because I trust someone else’s thinking.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Make your own smart choices
The new Smart Choices food-labeling program wants you to choose your food based on what is on the front of the box.