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“Smart Choices” Program is Not So Smart

Posted Dec 01 2008 12:00am

Reading labelsWouldn’t it be nice if you could go to the store and know exactly which foods are healthy for you and which aren’t? That’s the idea behind recent “stamps of nutrition approval” you’ve seen popping up all over food packages lately. For instance, the Best Life Diet has a symbol they place on a number of foods they have approved. Food manufacturers have also been making their own “good nutrition choice” type stamps.

In an effort to circumvent the confusion that has arisen from this plethora of symbols, an organization called the Keystone Center has brought together a veritable Who’s Who of food manufacturers (General Mills, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Kellogg, Kraft, Pepsico, Unilever, and Wal-Mart to name a few) to work with a panel of food and nutrition experts and government agencies to create a new food labeling program called Smart Choices. Foods would carry a “single trusted symbol” representing healthy food choices at the grocery store.1

There are some positives to the Smart Choices program. For instance, on packaged and processed foods, the label will require calories per serving to be listed on the front of the package along with the number of servings in the package. That’s a good start, but in reality, the idea is better than the actual implementation, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the food recommendations say nothing about organic food choices and are based upon the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines, which are still recommending a low fat diet as the healthiest option. In order to qualify for the Smart Choices program, an item must have less than 35% total fat calories or less than 3 grams of fat per serving.

For any animal protein to qualify, it must be low in cholesterol and must be extra lean. But many studies show that a higher protein, lower carbohydrate eating plan is the way to go to achieve weight loss and healthier lipid profiles, regardless of a higher fat intake.2 In addition, lower carb higher protein and fat diets have the added benefit of suppressing appetite while preserving lean muscle mass.2

Speaking of carbohydrates, the program is supposed to disqualify foods that have more than 25% of their calories coming from added sugars, but they allowed some exceptions breakfast cereals and sweetened milk or dairy products– which can have up to 12 grams of added sugar per serving regardless of what the percentage works out to be.

Why exempt a higher sugar breakfast cereal and chocolate milk? The rationale was that it will increase a person’s intake of these “nutritious” foods because of enhanced palatability. What they are really saying is that a lot of kids won’t eat breakfast cereal or drink milk unless it means being able to eat the sugar-laden versions. I’m sorry, but let’s call a spade a spade. Added sugars are ridiculously bad for us, period. I don’t care if it gets the kids to eat more of these foods or not. It sends the wrong message, and in the end is bad for them.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, a stamp of approval on a food implies that it is good for anyone, no matter what. Clearly there are circumstances that will supersede that symbol. For instance, if you are insulin resistant, carbs (even including whole grains) should be limited until you balance your blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides, blood pressure, etc.

The waters get very muddied when food manufacturers, health organizations, and governments try to explain the intricacies of diet with broad advice such as 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans “eat more whole grains.” This advice may benefit an active teenager who changes their white bread to whole wheat, but will not improve, and may even hurt, the health parameters of an overweight sedentary individual if they don’t understand the exceptions.

And what about food sensitivities or allergies? In our experience, food allergies and sensitivities often stop weight loss in people. Cheese made from cow’s milk, whether it has a low-fat stamp of approval or not, and wheat whether it is whole grain or not, may be a problem for some people.

The bottom line is, food choices need to be individualized as much as possible and need to follow current health issues instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, which isn’t even based on the most recent science.


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