The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Smart Choices

Smart Choices

Health and Wellness

November 23, 2008

These days, labels are everywhere. From signs and symbols to panels and checkmarks, a walk down any supermarket aisle reveals a variety of diverse nutrition rating systems emblazoned on food packages. Some labels are store-sponsored, like Hannaford’s Guiding Stars. Manufacturers and health and consumer organizations sponsor others, like General Mills’ Nutrition Highlights or the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check Mark.

But all this diversity can be challenging to consumers. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation and others report that people can be confused by nutrition information on labels and may have difficulty using label information to improve their diets.

Motivated by the need for a single, trusted and reliable front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labeling program that U.S. food manufacturers and retailers can voluntarily adopt, a new labeling system, called the “Smart Choices Program,” aims to streamline the proliferation of conflicting, inconsistent systems into one universal program.

With the Smart Choices Program, individual products are evaluated against nutrition criteria established for 18 different product categories. To qualify for the Smart Choices Program symbol, foods would need to meet these specific nutrition criteria. Criteria are based on nutrients to limit, like total fat, cholesterol and added sugars,and nutrients to encourage, like calcium, fiber and potassium. Certain food groups, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are encouraged as well.

Once a product qualifies for the program, the Smart Choices Program icon is provided at-a-glance on the front of the package for consumers. In addition, the label will contain two other simple pieces of information: calories per serving and the number of servings per package. 
 
The Smart Choices Program standards are derived from consensus science and incorporate the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA standard definition for “healthy,” the USDA definition for “extra lean,” and additional federal standards.

Susan Borra, President of the IFIC Foundation and member of the Keystone-Smart Choices coalition, says the program has the potential to become the most widely used FOP labeling system in the United States, and ultimately assist people in making positive dietary changes. Developed under the guidance of the non-profit Keystone Center, the Smart Choices Program stands out from the pack, she says, by taking a broad, coalition-based, unified approach to FOP labeling.

“Consumers don’t know what to make of all the different types of nutrition information available to them in the marketplace,” says Borra. “The goal with the Smart Choices Program is to provide information that is simple and easy for people to use.”

The Smart Choices Program is transparent, so that users can see exactly how products have earned their stamp, and comprehensive, so that it applies to all Americans. While the federally run Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction, the Smart Choices Program has the ability to update frequently to reflect changes in diet recommendations.

“When the NFP came out in the early 1990’s, the number one concern was fat intake, which the NFP reflects. Since obesity issues are more pressing today, the Smart Choices Program hones in on energy imbalances,” says Borra. “As a voluntary program, the Smart Choices Program can be more easily changed to stay relevant with current nutrition and health science.”

Starting in 2009, companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Wal-Mart have announced they will replace their existing symbols with the Smart Choices Program uniform system and label. Additional companies are expected to make similar announcements soon.

Dr. Susan Crockett, Vice President and Senior Technology Officer for Health and Nutrition at General Mills, says that the Smart Choices Program represents consensus decisions by academic experts, advocates, regulators, NGO’s, and the food industry.

“With so many companies employing different FOP labeling systems, all with different criteria, there was clear potential for consumer confusion,” says Crockett. “The Smart Choices Program initiative addresses that issue. We especially like the fact that the new Smart Choices Program initiative will be administered in a not-for-profit manner, with nutrition criteria that are public and transparent to everyone. It is a strong initiative that advances front-of-pack labeling, and one we believe will help consumers.”

Ultimately, the program like the Smart Choices Program could drive change in the nutritional quality of our food supply, says Borra, as manufacturers are also now looking into using the criteria in the development of new products. This, she says, could have an incredible impact on consumers – and the industry in general.

“As consumer interest in improving their diet and health grows,” adds Borra, “this is a huge opportunity for retailers and manufacturers to help them accomplish those goals.”

For more information about the Smart Choices Program, please visit:www.smartchoicesprogram.com.