19 August 2009

The Smart Choices Program aims to simplify healthy shopping

Smart Choices program logoIf you're like me, much of the time you spend grocery shopping is actually spent reading labels. Unfortunately, between the opaque ingredient lists (what are "natural flavors?") and confusing, often conflicting health news, choosing healthy food is far from straightforward. The goal of the Smart Choices Program is to create a consistent, easy-to-identify front-of-the-package symbol that helps shoppers quickly identify healthy food choices across brands. Sounds like a decent grocery shopping hack, right?

And it is, for the most part. But before I continue, I'll admit to a certain bias. I do the majority of my shopping at natural-leaning grocery stores, my cookbooks are mostly of the hippie vegetarian variety, and I try to emphasize fresh, whole foods. That said, I search for convenience as much as the next person. I may go for Kashi cereal instead of Froot Loops, but by no means am I a 100% scratch cook. So while I liked the Smart Choices idea in theory, I approached it with caution. My idea of a smart grocery choice is likely different than many Americans'.

I spent a day in New York City this week to attend the Smart Choices launch. Nutrition educator and dietician Wendy Bazilian, author of The SuperFoodsRX Diet, toured us around a grocery store (the gorgeous Food Emporium) explaining the program and pointing out various products that have already adopted the new labeling. It's simple: on the front of the package, it lists calories-per-serving, number of servings per package, and, if the product qualifies, a green checkmark calling that product out as a "smart choice."Wendy Bazilian This labeling wouldn't replace the Nutrition Facts or ingredient lists; it would streamline picking healthier items off the store shelf. Sort of a first-level filter.

This is no marketing campaign; the nutrition criteria for receiving a Smart Choices checkmark is based on science, not influence. In fact, the program is the result of a collaboration between nutritionists, academics, scientists, health and consumer organizations and food companies. Even more compelling, the criteria are flexible, allowing them to change as new definitive nutrition information emerges.

The program is funded by the food companies that voluntarily participate, but all of the money goes to a nonprofit that's jointly administered by the American Society for Nutrition and NSF International. These non-partisan organizations make sure the products meet the program's criteria for inclusion, and also educate the public about nutrition and public health.

Wendy's talk, while it didn't teach me anything new about nutrition (the Smart Choices criteria reflect the well-known Dietary Guidelines for Americans), did educate me about the nature of widespread change...that it happens incrementally. She believes that success comes when people improve their health from wherever they are, not by beating themselves up for to failing to reach what many see as an unattainable ideal. This more accessible approach to public health makes a lot of sense. 90% of Americans buy brands participating in this program. The potential impact is huge.

The Smart Choices Program doesn't address every nutritional question. High fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners can be found in foods designated as Smart Choices, as can plenty of other additives. But it's a start. It's important to remember that many Americans have limited access to fresh, whole foods. We're also creatures of culture and habit, and food habits, especially, are hard to break. Baby steps, when enough are taken, for a long enough time, can make all the difference.

Clearly, there's critical mass -- enough brands (especially smaller ones) need to adopt this labeling program for it to be useful. Consumers need to learn about the program so they don't dismiss it as a marketing ploy. But I believe this is a step in the right direction, and I'm excited that the Smart Choices Program -- and smart people -- are taking on the challenge.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you think simplified food labeling will help people shop smarter?

Note: While the Smart Choices Program made it possible for me to attend the launch (they provided transportation, lodging, and food), I was not paid to attend, nor is this post sponsored. In fact, I was under no obligation to write at all, but I think it's a good idea worth supporting, and it's a great start for a conversation about how we balance health, convenience, budget, and taste.

Your comments

I've been trying to make smarter food purchasing choices myself lately. I've realized that the smartest choices are the foods that are not labeled at all, but are packaged only in their own peel, skin, or shell. Fresh veggies and fruit from the farmer's market, meat from a trustworthy butcher, grains and beans that often come in bulk... less packaging and absolutely no artificial ingredients!

Yes, I think simplified health information is important. My 8yo was just reading the labels on our salsas and saw that the Mild included High Fructose Corn Syrup while the Medium did not! It just shouldn't be that hard.

I like anything that will encourage people to think about what's in their food. Now they just need to provide a huge Smart Choices banner to hang over the whole produce section.

Go smart go organic!

Yeah, I don't buy it. We've seen this type of packaging labeling before. It doesn't deal with the fact that serving sizes are so far from what people expect. HFCS is a Smart Choice? I think not. Not to mention that the nutritional info is based on what an adult needs, and my biggest concern is what my daughter needs, which turns out to be whole dairy products. So it's moot to me.
My time saving-trick is to check ingredient lists online rather than trying to ready the itty bitty print in the store while wrangling a toddler. If a product doesn't have info online, forget it.

I have to admit that generally speaking, I'm very suspicious about these kinds of labeling initiatives. For one thing, it's really hard to tell which "healthy" label to trust: General Mills markets the "whole grain" content of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, for heaven's sake. I'm pretty sure I've seen at least 3 or 4 different attempts to label "smart(er) choices" on packages in my local grocery store: how do I know which labeling standard emphasizes which specific nutritional aspects, without detailed label-reading, which is what the labeling campaigns are designed to help you avoid?

And for another, campaigns like this drastically over-simplify the tradeoffs and balances of finding what is healthy for you and your family - as Becky C. points out, what is healthy for her daughter (whole-fat dairy) isn't necessarily healthy for her. What was "healthy" for me while following a diet for gestational diabetes is not necessarily healthy for me now, post-pregnancy and with normal blood glucose levels.

It reminds me a lot of the whole "low-fat" thing: folks rush to buy "low-fat" (and inevitably more-processed) versions of "unhealthy" foods and then eat lots and lots of them, thinking that's "healthy," rather than eating a moderate-to-tiny amount of the real thing and getting a much more diverse, less-processed, better-balanced diet.

I can't believe I am just hearing about this! I've already forwarded this onto my wife who had the same sentiments as me--why didn't they think about this earlier? Our family tries to eat healthy on a regular basis, and here in Colorado there's no shortage of Whole Foods stores and Sunflower Markets, which makes natural food shopping easier. In general, though, this definitely something my entire family will look forward to seeing expand.

It looks gimicky to me. If it allows HFCS and artificial sugars, it's hard to trust it. I'd rather spend the extra time reading labels.

i think this is a great step for the majority of americans. it's easy for us to be critical of programs like this because as readers of this blog, most of us are already taking an extra step to make healthy choices for our families. but for the public-at-large, who may still not be as aware of the dangers of HFCS and the like, it serves its purpose as a "first step." if it at least makes someone pause and think about what he/she is buying for their family when they didn't before, then i think that's a good thing.

kudos to the program for taking the initiative, and kudos to asha for spreading the word!

I understand "baby steps" and incremental change but indicating sugary cereals as a better choice makes me really nervous. There are too many people out there that are looking for an easy answer and I'm afraid that this gives it to them. I think the standards should have been higher for this ... in my opinion it actually really is a marketing gimmick.

Now that it's come out what products qualify as a "Smart Choice" it's more obvious that this program is intentionally misleading, courtesy of our friends at General Mills, Kraft, Unilever, etc. I have seen a few reports that these companies have basically bought in to the program at $10k for each product. Also it looks like the FDA is investigating how these decisions were made. It's a pity, because it could have been a great program to help people make these decisions, but it's just another layer of misinformation to wade through.

Just came across this critical article in the NY Times about the program and remembered the post here. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/05/business/05smart.html

Becky: Yes, indeed -- I'm reading the questionable press reports, too, and have an email in to these folks to follow up. The impression I got while there was that, yes, food companies do pay in, but the collaboration between them, nutritionists, etc. was even in terms of influence.

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