[Read more about fiber sources: soluble, insoluble, and beyond.]
The standards aren't perfect, but the program is a good start, says Wendy Bazilian, a nutritionist and registered dietitian who supports Smart Choices. "It's a great way of narrowing the playing field." Families are going to buy packaged convenience foods, she says, so some kind of guidance as to more healthful options is incredibly helpful. (Bazilian was compensated for her time during Smart Choice's press launch but not for her ongoing support of the program.)
In a letter to the general manager of Smart Choices, representatives of the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Department of Agriculture said they'd be monitoring the products and their effect on food choices and perceptions and "would be concerned if any [front-of-the-pack] labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains." (Since it's a voluntary system, not all foods will be rated; will consumers think that an unchecked apple is less healthful than a checked bag of chips?)
Smart Choices is not the only recent addition to the ratings game. Back in the supermarket aisle, a system called NuVal, available in chains including Hy-Vee, Meijer, and Price Chopper, uses a proprietary algorithm to crunch the pluses (including the presence of nutrients such as fiber, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids) and the minuses (the presence of saturated and trans fats, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol) and come up with a score from 1 to 100. The higher the number, the better for you. "It's a GPS for food labels," says David Katz, the physician who conceived of NuVal and is the cofounder and director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, in a reference to the global positioning system. "It takes you where you want to go, but you still make the decision." He says it's a particularly useful tool when you're choosing within a category, say, between a Salerno butter cookie (NuVal score: 1) and a Health Valley oatmeal raisin cookie (NuVal score: 34). True, neither scores particularly high, but "I'd just as soon have the food I like love me back a little," says Katz. If a grocery store agrees to participate, all foods in the store must be scored, he says.
The Nutrient-Rich Foods Index, a 5-point scoring system, will also roll out online this fall, says Adam Drewnowski, professor and director for the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle, who is one of the developers of the index. (The Nutrient-Rich Food Coalition is a collection of commodity organizations, representing industries including eggs, citrus, beef, and potatoes.) "We do eat too many calories, too much sugar, and too many saturated fats, but we are now valuing foods by the absence of problematic nutrients," he says. "We've stopped caring about the good things. Let's think about protein, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and vitamins and bring back positive nutrition." The developers hope to place the system in supermarkets at some point.
A thousand ratings systems are blooming because it's going to be exceedingly tough to get nutritionists, the food industry, and activists to voluntarily agree on a single set of criteria, says Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who is nonetheless encouraged by all the activity on this front. But more research is needed to nail down the best system, he says After all, we really don't know what kind of program will work best—a single check, a range of zero to five stars or dots, or a 1-100 score? Or a "traffic light" system (red, yellow, and green symbols for levels of saturated fat, sodium, and other nutrients) like the one in Britain? While research suggests that these programs can affect purchases—skewing them toward the preferred items—we don't yet know how long such an effect would last or whether it would make a dent in the rates of obesity or other related diseases, which have multiple causes and aren't likely to be drastically changed by any kind of labeling system.