Smart Choices, an industry-supported initiative to certify foods for nutritional benefits, is under fire in the press and the halls of government.
At issue is the fact that products such as Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Crispies, Ritz Bitz Peanut Butter Chocolately Blast crackers, Mayonnaise, and Fudgesicles receive the Smart Choices “green check” of approval. Critics lament that while products such as Froot Loops do contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals, they also contain 12 grams of sugar per serving – which is 41% of the product by weight.
The media has had no problem finding critics of Smart Choices and the idea that the food industry can regulate themselves on nutrition issues. The New York Times quoted Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, decrying Smart Choices as really a set of “horrible choices.”. The Los Angeles times quoted Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor from NYU, as saying simply: “Froot Loops? Froot Loops! I rest my case.”
The Smart Choices label seems to have thrown fuel on a fire already burning around “front of package” claims, and broader debates about transparency in the food industry.
Just to be clear, the back and sides of food packages, which people rarely read, are where food companies are required to print ingredient lists, nutrition facts, and country of origin (for some products). The front of the package, which is what you actually see on the store shelf, is where companies are increasingly making health and sustainability claims that are much less regulated.
The government may now be stepping in to change this. The Attorney General of Connecticut initiated an investigation in late September into whether Smart Choices actually represents a form of consumer deception.
The Attorney General stated:
These so-called Smart Choices seem nutritionally suspect – and the label potentially misleading. The Smart Choices label adorns sugar-laden cereals appealing to children, but not many healthier breakfast choices. Our investigation asks what objective scientific standards, research or factual evidence justify labeling such products as ‘smart.’
We have serious concerns about the research and reasoning behind a program that promotes fat-saturated mayonnaise and sugar-studded cereals as nutritional smart choices. These concerns – potentially misleading and deceptive labeling of nutritional value – apply to other supposed Smart Choices label products marketed to adults as well as children.”
Following on Connecticut’s announcement, Rep. Rosa Delauro (D-Conn) asked the FDA to investigate Smart Choices, and the broader proliferation of claims, labels, and certifications of food products.
The Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that they would investigate Smart Choices and other front-of-package claims, with the goal of developing regulatory guidelines for a uniform labeling system by the end of 2010. They hope to advance clearer standards and requirements to disclose “saturated fat, salt, added sugar, and calories,” on the front of a package if a company makes any health claim about the product.
The FDA commissioner also indicated that they are looking at European “traffic light” labeling systems – which provide simple green, yellow, and red dots on products – as a potential model for the US front-of-label system.
In the meantime, GoodGuide will continue to work to make the information on what’s actually inside food products, rather than what’s on the label, more transparent and useful to consumers.
Oh, and just for full disclosure: Froot Loops gets a 4.2 out of 10 for its health score on GoodGuide.
UPDATE – 10/23/09
Very surprising news – only two days after the FDA announced they would be investigating Smart Choices and working on new regulations on front-of-package labeling, the Smart Choices program is effectively suspending their operations.
As the New York Times reported:
The Smart Choices program sent a letter on Friday to Dr. Hamburg and Mr. Blumenthal saying it would stop recruiting companies to take part in the program and stop promoting the program to consumers.
PepsiCo also announced that they would be cutting ties with the program. And Kelloggs, the maker of Froot Loops, said they would begin to phase out packaging bearing the Smart Choices label.
Clearly, all of the public criticisms of the program, which had motivated government inquiries, are now seen by the industry has more trouble than the benefits they hoped to gain from Smart Choices.
I think this shows that industry really does need an independent body or the government itself to set the rules of disclosure. The media, academics, advocates, and even average shoppers are increasingly cynical about industry “self-regulation.”