Quotables from the Smart Choices debacle

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, had worked with the Smart Choices program to help develop its criteria, but resigned last year out of concerns that the standards were too loose.

Mr. Jacobson said he believed that the companies involved in Smart Choices had hoped to head off federal regulation of package-front labeling by showing they could develop an acceptable system on their own.

"It clearly blew up in their faces," Jacobson said. "And the ironic thing is, their device for pre-empting government involvement actually seems to have stimulated government involvement."


According to a study from Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, researchers found that cereals marketed directly to children have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fibre, and 60 percent more sodium than cereals marketed for adult consumption. In addition, of the 19 cereal brands that were marketed directly to children, not one meets the nutrition criteria required to advertise to children in the United Kingdom. But every one meets industry's own standards for 'better-for-you' foods.


Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, posted a statement on Oct 20, 2009 on the organization's website saying "a growing number of privately devised — and sometimes inconsistent — labelling systems may be confusing, not enlightening, some consumers."

He gives an example to illustrate how this Smart Choices program can mislead consumers. "Consider Kraft's Strawberry Bagel-ful, which is a mostly white-flour bagel stuffed with cream cheese and strawberry purée that is sweetened with sugar and coloured with red dye 40. It's exactly the kind of food we should be eating less of, but it gets the Smart Choices logo."


"These are horrible choices," said Walter C Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health. "It's a blatant failure of this system and it makes it, I'm afraid, not credible."


"You're rushing around, you're trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal," said Eileen T Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. "So Froot Loops is a better choice."

Froot Loops qualifies for the label because it meets standards set by the Smart Choices Program for fibre and vitamins A and C, and because it does not exceed limits on fat, sodium and sugar. It contains the maximum amount of sugar allowed under the program for cereals — 12 grams per serving — which in the case of Froot Loops is 41 percent of the product, measured by weight. That is more sugar than in many popular brands of cookies.

"Froot Loops is an excellent source of many essential vitamins and minerals, and it is also a good source of fiber with only 12 grams of sugar," said Celeste A Clark, senior vice president of global nutrition for Kellogg's, which makes Froot Loops. "You cannot judge the nutritional merits of a food product based on one ingredient."


"Froot Loops? Froot Loops! I rest my case," said Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University. "No nutritionist I know would recommend Froot Loops for breakfast. The object of this is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not."


See nutrition criteria established by the Smart Choices board here and here.

Specific qualifying criteria were developed for 19 different product categories, such as beverages, cereals, meats, dairy, and snacks, based on the presence of nutrients to limit (e.g., fats and added sugars), nutrients to encourage (eg, calcium and potassium), and food groups to encourage (eg, fruits and vegetables, whole grains).


From the FDA: http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/LabelClaims/ucm187320.htm

The existing consumer research suggests that consumers like FOP labeling, finding it to be a time-saver. Consumers do not fully trust it, however, and find the plethora of FOP labels confusing. Most importantly, research suggests that FOP labels can give consumers an overrated view of a food's healthiness, and make it less likely that consumers will read the complete Nutrition Facts information on the back.

The FDA intends to conduct further research in the coming months that will compare several FOP types, with the goal of determining which best help consumers make informed choices.

The FDA is developing a proposed regulation that would define the nutritional criteria that would have to be met by manufacturers making broad FOP or shelf-label claims concerning the nutritional quality of a food, whether the claim is made in text or in symbols. The FDA's intent is to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP nutrition labeling must be based.

The nutrition community will be able to weigh in more formally through an Institute of Medicine study of FOP labeling directed by the 2009 Labor/HHS appropriations bill.

The nutrition labeling statute gives FDA authority to ensure that consumers get nutrition information and that it be provided in an effective way. The agency focused initially on the Nutrition Facts label, which has proven to be successful. Now, however, with manufacturers desiring to use the front of the package for nutrition information, the logical next step may be to ensure that such labeling is done in the best way possible. That could mean setting criteria governing how voluntary FOP systems are done or establishing a single, uniform, government-mandated symbol. The planned consumer research will be critical to making that decision so that the desire for a simpler format on the front of pack is consistent with how consumers make judgments about the nutritional or healthful attributes of products, and is not misleading for consumers, but assures they make informed choices.

First, the agency is working closely with USDA officials, as it will be important that USDA's oversight of labeling of meat and poultry be consistent with FDA decisions on the rest of the food supply. The agency is also assisting the IOM in the development of its study, in consultation also with USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And FDA and USDA will be working with retailers, private design experts, food manufacturers, nutrition experts, and health officials from other countries, to ensure that a comprehensive research agenda is conceived and carried out.

Consumers can currently use the Nutrition Facts label to make judgments for themselves about the food products. The % Daily Value is a useful tool for comparing various products whether looking at nutrients to limit such as sodium or saturated fat or nutrients to get enough of such as fiber or vitamins and minerals. Keep in mind that 5% of the Daily Value (DV) is low and 20% of the DV is high. The Nutrition Facts label provides information based on a single serving of the product and the serving size is indicated in Nutrition Facts.

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