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Smart Choices Program – Guiding BAD Food Choices

Posted Nov 12 2009 10:04pm

Smart Choices Image

The article from this weekends’ NY Times prompted me to poke around the website of the Smart Choices Program. For those that are unfamiliar with the increasingly ubiquitous ‘check mark’ symbol that appears on the packaging many food products, the alleged idea behind the Smart Choices Program is to help shoppers make smarter food and beverage choices within various product categories that can be found in every supermarket isle.

In order to qualify, products must meet a series of nutritional requirements (considered to be ‘comprehensive’ by Smart Choices) reportedly derived from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, FDA standards, reports from the Institute of Medicine and other sources of authoritative dietary guidance.

Although I appreciate the effort to put data such as calories on the front of a package in a consistent format so that consumers can easily access and digest relevant information, I believe the efforts are slightly misguided. Here’s a few reasons why:

1. The nutritional criteria itself is too broad based and easily met by a host of products across various categories. For instance, Lucky Charms qualifies as a Smart Choice. Really? Smart according to who?

2. The organization behind Smart Choice is funded annually by all of the Big Food Companies.They are the only ones who can afford to pay to have the label placed on their products.

3. When you query for a product search, you can only find items from Big Food. For instance, when searching under Fruits and Vegetables (with no additives) - sadly they have to make this distinction – the only two companies that come up are General Mills and Sun-Maid.

According to the Times article:

“Ten companies have signed up for the Smart Choices program so far, including Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo and Tyson Foods. Companies that participate pay up to $100,000 a year to the program, with the fee based on total sales of its products that bear the seal.”

Good idea (if in fact the intentions were and are legitimate), seriously lacking on the execution.

For any of these ideas and/or programs to be effective in improving the quality of the American diet and as a result have a real impact on the obesity epidemic, they must be developed independently on an arms length basis (relative to the Big Food manufacturers who stand to gain economically)  in conjunction with the development of an entirely new set of guidelines that reflect all that we have learned about food over the last 2 decades.

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