"Smart Choices" – Why It Is So Hard to Make Sense of Food Labels

A new food labeling campaign is being launched by some of the country’s top food manufacturers. It is called “Smart Choices” and is meant to guide all of us who are interested in healthy eating. An easily identifiable label is printed on the front of the selected food packages. Its spiffy logo with green letters on white background suggests that you are getting food that is natural, fresh, clean – and therefore healthier. An oversized checkmark signals some kind of approval or endorsement and makes it look more official.

According to the “Smart Choices” program’s own website, “the program was motivated by the need for a single, trusted and reliable front-of-pack nutrition labeling program… to help guide consumers in making smarter food and beverage choices.”

On face value, this seems to be a good idea whose time has come. Consumers want to be better informed about their food, but they need help. So, the industry says, all you have to do is “follow the green checkmark.”

In addition, detailed calorie and serving size information is being moved to the front as well. Since many consumers find it hard to decipher traditional Nutrition Facts labels, it seems only logical to put the most relevant information in places where it is not so easily missed.

But the new campaign is not yet in full swing, and it already faces plenty of controversy about the seriousness of the whole enterprise. Some critics, among them Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) advisers, have expressed uneasiness about the fact that this is a food industry sponsored initiative whose primary goal is not so much to inform consumers but to market its products. In fact, there have been complaints about the dominating role allegedly played by food manufacturers in the making of the program from the start. That should not come as a surprise!

Whatever the disagreements may be, it is of concern to see that already some food products have been labeled as “Smart Choices” that would not be considered nutritionally beneficial by most nutrition experts. For instance, according to a recent report in the New York Times, Kellogg’s Froot Loops cereal has been approved, despite the fact that it contains a whopping 12 grams of sugar per serving, which is 41% of the entire product. Other highly processed foods, such as mayonnaise, have also been given the seal – and not just for the light and fat-free versions, but for the “real” thing as well. The same with peanut butter. Needless to say that health watchdogs are weary.

I’m not by nature a suspicious person, and I don’t assume that good ideas are automatically corrupted because they serve somebody’s business interests. On the other hand, I’m not inclined to place my blind trust in people whose actions are mostly driven by their bottom line. As a dietitian, I am especially cautious about claims and promises made by food manufacturers, not because I consider them as untrustworthy, but because health benefits are usually not the main concern in food manufacturing, period. Food companies focus their attention on products that are attractive, competitively priced and have long shelf lives. A diet dominated by fresh foods is much more wasteful by comparison. There is a reason why the produce departments carry the most expensive food items in grocery stores. But there is where the really good stuff is – where you can make the “smartest choices” of all, if you will.

The food we eat affects our health and well-being more directly and more profoundly than almost any other purchases we make. This is where we need to pay close attention and make the necessary efforts to learn the facts for ourselves. To me, knowing how to eat right is a part of being educated about the things in life that matter the most. So, notwithstanding all the good intentions to make our lives easier, in the end we have to do hard work ourselves and become better informed consumers on our own merits. The seal of approval that really counts, after all, is our good health.

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