Apparently, I've been living under a rock, as I haven't been aware of a recent food controversy about a new product labeling program called "Smart Choices." This new labeling program, sponsored by the food industry, not the government, is designed to help consumers "build healthy habits for the long term," by labeling products with a prominent, recognizable stamp of approval from the program.
Sounds great, doesn't it? You can just roam the aisles of the supermarket and grab any item with the Healthy Choices label and feel good about the contents of your shopping cart, right? Have a look at some of the products that have already been approved and maybe you'll think otherwise. Here are a few (mind you, I'm cherry-picking to make a point):
- Froot Loops
- Cocoa Puffs
- Lipton Iced Tea (even non-diet)
- "Bagel-Fuls" Bagels filled with flavored cream cheese
- Kid's Cuisine frozen meals (Hot Dogs, Chicken Nuggets, Toasted Ravioli, Mac & Cheese...to name a few)
- Lunchables Pizza
- Slim Fast
- Classic "Cheese and Crackers" Style Lunchables (listed in the "Snack" category instead of meals)
So how do candy-like, sugar, and fat-filled products like Froot Loops and cream cheese stuffed bagels get on the list? The same way foods like Cheerios can make medical claims like the ability to lower your cholesterol. The companies massage numbers and facts heavily and tweak their recipes slightly to make the product "sound" more nutritious than it is. Here are a few examples:
- Serving Sizes - The calorie and fat counts used on the program's label are by "serving size." If you've ever looked at your favorite foods, you'll realize that most of us realistically use 2 to 3 times the serving size as an actual serving and that often, that's a pretty reasonable serving.
- Adding "Healthy" Ingredients in Small Amounts - Manufacturers add vitamins, minerals, and other healthy ingredients to their product recipes like fiber and "whole grains" and then claim the food is healthy. When the first ingredient is still sugar (or corn syrup) and the last is the healthy ingredient, I don't call that healthy.
- Comparing Apples to Oranges - Supposedly, the program lets you choose healthier products. However, the program isn't based on the comparison of two similar products. It's based on nutritional value calculations from the product label and a loose set of nutritional limits set by industry participants. What does this add up to? A box of "Cereal A" may contain the Healthy Choices label while a box of "Cereal B" beside it may not when Cereal B is the healthier of the two by a long shot. Both may meet the criteria for the label, but the manufacturer B produces a product that is two or four times healthier but isn't a member of the program.
Many thanks to GoodEater.org for pointing-out this important issue and helping to spread the word.