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The New York Times reports on a controversy surrounding the Smart Choices program, which uses a green checkmark on CPG products to denote “smarter food and beverage choices.” At issue are the standards used by Smart Choices to define these smarter options …and the fact that “sugar-laden cereals like Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops” have made the list.

“These are horrible choices,” Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health, tells the Times, saying that giving such products an imprimatur represents “a blatant failure of the system.”

The same time, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reportedly have sent the Smart Choices management a letter saying that are monitoring the impact of the label, to make sure that label does not have “the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

However, Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts university, defends the program as identifying “better for you” products as opposed to approving some and disapproving others, and she tells the Times that “the program’s criteria were based on government dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards. She said the program was also influenced by research into consumer behavior. That research showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them.”

According to the Smart Choices website, “The Smart Choices Program is the only nutrition labeling system that was created by a diverse coalition of scientists, academicians, health and research organizations, food and beverage manufacturers, and retailers. Unlike scoring systems, product rankings or store-based programs, the Smart Choices Program is a not-for-profit program created by a coalition that developed nutrition criteria based on consensus science including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other sources of authoritative dietary guidance.”

The Smart Choices board is made of up of representatives from the Baylor College of Medicine, the American Dietetic Association, and the American Diabetes Association, as well as executives from Kellogg’s, General Mills, Kraft Foods and Unilever. There have been some complaints that the program’s decisions are too influenced by the industry representatives.

“The object of (Smart Choices) is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, tells the Times.
KC's View:
This is a debate that ultimately doesn’t do any of the nutritional labeling programs any good, because it creates doubts about legitimacy and consumer value.

I’m sure the Smart Choices folks are doing their best to offer viable and actionable guidance, but I’m not sure they are doing themselves any favors by saying that “sugar-laden” cereals are good for you, and falling back on the “well, they are better for you than some other things” defense. In the end, as many of these companies actually spent a lot of time and money trying to develop healthier options, they may undermine those efforts by lumping them in with less healthy products.

I’m not saying that nobody should eat sugared cereals, not ever. But at the very least, it is fair to say that they’re not on a nutritional par with things like fresh fruit and whole grains…and the Smart Choices defense sound suspiciously like rationalization.

There will, I suspect, be some folks who will say that this is why there needs to be a national nutritional labeling system, but I also think there is a good argument for why a multitude of programs may better serve shoppers…if for no other reason than it allows people to choose which programs best serve their needs. For example, if I think that the Guiding Stars program is the one that best suits my buying patterns and nutritional priorities, then I can choose the local store that offers it. If I feel that way about the Nuval system, then I can choose the store that uses that system.

Sure, there is the possibility that this could all get confusing for consumers, and it is up to retailers to a) explain the way their chosen systems work, b) explain the differential advantages of their system. This puts a greater burden on retailers, but since this is something they ought to be doing anyway – being a resource for information as well as a source of product – it ought to fit into a broader strategic imperative.