If 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.” 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.