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Smart Choice program set to begin

Product formulators may want to keep "healthier for you" in mind when developing new products or improving existing product lines. In August, consumers will have a new front-of-pack label to consider when perusing grocers' shelves.

The Smart Choices Program aims to provide a simple, science-based and standard-supported identifier for healthier foods. The front-of-package icon, which goes into effect on August 24, will be allowed on products that meet the criteria developed by nutritionists, food policy experts, representative from major food companies and health organizations. The hope is to not only influence consumer buying but to also inspire companies to create new products and upgrade their existing products to be eligible for the labeling.

NSF International and the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) will administer the programme. NSF is a not-for-profit organization that has been certifying products and writing standards for food, water and consumer goods since 1944. ASN is a professional organization for nutrition-research scientists and clinicians. The Smart Choices programme will operate on a 'trust-but-verify' basis when screening and monitoring.

In order to display the label, products in various categories must meet basic criteria for specific 'nutrients to limit,' and, for most categories, products must also meet criteria for positive attributes — 'nutrients to encourage' or 'food groups to encourage.'

For instance, under the 'nutrients-to-limit' category, per-serving calories from total fat must not exceed 35 per cent, cholesterol must not exceed 60mg, and sodium must not exceed 480m. Calcium, potassium, fibre, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E are included in the 'nutrients-to-encourage' category. There is also a 'food-groups-to-encourage' category that includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy. Qualifying criteria were developed for 19 different product categories, such as beverages, cereals, meats, dairy and snacks.

Reaching consensus on the attributes for the label took a 2-1/2 year process, facilitated by the Keystone Group, a Colorado-based management consultancy, and tested with focus groups and marketing analysis, according to Eileen Kennedy, DSc, RD, dean at the at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy, a Smart Choices founding team member.

The question posed by the team was, "What can be done to make the FDA food label a better tool for creating a positive change?" she said. Initially, companies participating in the programme were motivated by the desire to eliminate their own disparate labeling schemes and come up with a single scheme that communicates to the consumer which products are better for you, Kennedy said. Companies participating in the roundtable discussions and the newly launched products include General Mills, ConAgra, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Kellogg Company, Sun Maid and Unilever. According to a spokesperson at the (ASN), by spring of 2010, some 2,000 products are expected to be sporting the label.

Other labeling programmes have had success in recent years including Hannaford Brothers Guiding Star and NuVal. The Guiding Star system is based on three stars—good (one star), better (two star) and best )three star)healthy criteria. NuVal labeling uses the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI)100-point system with an algorithm that equates 30 nutrition factors like minerals, vitamins, sugar, protein, carbs, fat, trans fat, salt, omega 3, cholesterol, as well as antioxidants, energy density and glycemic load.

The ASN spokesperson said there will be a small marketing campaign to roll out the programme, and that the companies adopting the label may choose to highlight it in their own advertising.

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