Going to the grocery store with the goal of buying the most healthful packaged foods can be tough. Very few of us have the know-how and the time to read the official nutrition facts label and list of ingredients on the back of the package, balance that with the marketing claims on the front, and make an informed decision. So over the past few years, grocery stores—including Hannaford and Food Lion, with the Guiding Stars program, as well as SuperValu's Nutrition IQ program—have rolled out their own rating systems aimed at making things easier for shoppers.
But there's a different kind of system rolling out this fall, and rather than on shelf tags, you can find it right on the packaging of foods manufactured by PepsiCo, Kellogg Co., Unilever, Kraft Foods, and other companies. The Smart Choices program puts a green check on the front of products produced by participating manufacturers as long as the foods meet certain nutritional standards. (It also shows calories and serving size.) The program replaces the individual guidance systems that some companies had used. It was created by the nonprofit Keystone Center, which facilitated conversations between scientists, consumer organizations, and the food industry, then handed it off to the American Society for Nutrition to administer. So should you start making your purchasing decisions based solely on that check?
In a word: no. There are pros and cons to Smart Choices, as there are with other food labeling systems, and unfortunately, you aren't going to be able to abandon skepticism and critical thinking when you walk through those automatic supermarket doors. The big caveat is that while the new program's nutritional standards are "derived from" the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the government's pronouncement every five years on what foods and nutrients we should be consuming) and authoritative nutrition research, the recommended products aren't uniformly healthful. Cereals are a leading example. While foods in most product categories cannot qualify for a check if more than 25 percent of their calories come as added sugars, an exception was made for cereals, which can contain as many as 12 grams of sugar per serving. That allows for the inclusion of Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, and Cookie Crunch, all of which clock in at roughly 40 percent sugar.
Joanne Lupton, science adviser to the Smart Choices Program and a nutrition professor at Texas A&M University, says the exception was based on a "call out" in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines that says adding small amounts of sugar to nutrient-dense foods like cereals may make them more palatable and therefore boost intake. (In other words, a spoonful of sugar makes the cereal go down.) Still, it's hard to believe that Froot Loops is truly one of the best alternatives in the cereal aisle, given that sugar is the first ingredient, it has just 3 grams of fiber per serving, and it also contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. When I wrote about how to pick the best breakfast cereal, nutritionists advised opting for those that have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving and do not list sugar as one of the top three ingredients . . . and there were a handful of cereals that fit the bill.
[See these 5 ways to find the perfect breakfast cereal.]
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, says that in addition to tolerating high cereal sugar levels, Smart Choices sets particularly generous sodium standards. She's also concerned about the involvement of the well-respected ASN, which she says is effectively endorsing those 40 percent sugar cereals through its participation in the program. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says he resigned from the original Keystone Center roundtable on front-label nutrition icons in part because of disagreements with several of the program's criteria, including: Grain products were not required to be at least 50 percent whole grain, and "functional fibers" were counted the same as naturally occurring fiber.