William Neumann of the New York Times takes a hard look at “Smart Choices”, the new food industry-sponsored common nutrition labeling program, which makes its debut in supermarket packaged food aisles. The coveted green checkmark comes with a hefty license fee–toward the $100,000 mark per item–for food companies that want to qualify, but apparently qualifying is a little easier than you might expect. The new program, headed by a nutritionist with impressive enough credentials, has awarded healthy choice status to heavily sugared cereals like Froot Loops because, as she explains, they’re a better breakfast choice than, say, doughnuts. For sure.
How could any reputable nutritionist blurt something like that out to a New York Times reporter? Does she really use doughnuts as a benchmark for comparison when the question is “what should I feed my kid for breakfast?”
More to the point, how could items like Froot Loops end up qualifying as a smart choice? Apparently, the FDA is wondering the same thing.
Take a look at the Smart Choices program nutrition criteria. Under the program, a given processed food product qualifies as a “smart choice” if:
1. Its nutrition stats fall within consensus-defined limits for carbs, added sugars, fats, cholesterol, and sodium. But the criteria are not particularly consistent about whether these nutrition stats count for a single serving or a meal, or perhaps multiple servings throughout the day, and the upper limits shift between categories of foods. And some of the criteria have been muted, dropped, or subordinated according to the preferences of food industry members over the protests of the nutrition scientists.
2. It contains at least one positive nutrient from an industry-accepted list of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. The positive nutrient can be an additive, and it can be added to an otherwise nutritionally useless food product.
3. Alternatively to the positive nutrient criterion, the product can contain or represent some aspect of the category “food groups to encourage”: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat or non-fat milk. How much of any of these ingredients must be present, what their original source is, and whether the final food product retains any reasonable or comparable amount of the nutrition found in an unprocessed fruit, vegetable, grain, or dairy item which it claims to include are all a bit vague. Processed cheese is technically considered dairy, for example, even though it may contain mostly vegetable oils, starches, and emulsifiers, not milk.
Not all food categories seem to require both nutrient-of-concern limits and positive characteristics.
Finally, the instructions to companies wishing to qualify a given food product state: “Qualifying your products for the Smart Choices Program is quick and simple. Product review is typically completed in 24 – 48 hours.”
Pretty much says it all. And doesn’t really support the “science-based, consistent, reliable” claims the program presents to consumers and the media.
For further mirth and bemusement, check out Marion Nestle’s account of her discussions with Neumann and with the Kellogg’s VP for global nutrition on her blog.
Filed under: Food Politics | Tagged: Big Food, cereal, childhood nutrition, consumers, food labeling, Food Politics, Froot Loops, Kellogg's, Marion Nestle, nutrition labeling, processed food industry, Smart Choices, supermarkets |