Nutrition 101: How Smart is the New 'Smart Choices' Program

By , SparkPeople Blogger
A new voluntary "front-of-package" nutrition labeling system called the Smart Choices Program was introduced at last month's Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). And, to compound confusion, this isn't the only label you'll soon see on food in supermarkets. So what is the Smart Choices Program and how can it help you?

The Smart Choices Program guidelines provide science-based criteria grounded in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Qualifying guidelines have been developed in 18 different categories and products bearing the logo on their packaging must adhere to standards related to nutrients, food groups and calories.

The goal of the Smart Choices Program is to provide a consistent and easy to find nutrition guideline on packaging, regardless of where you shop or what brand you buy. The Smart Choices Program symbol and labeling information are expected to appear on packages starting in mid-2009. Let's take a closer look at the program to see if it will be your key to nutrition success and improved health or simply a new marketing strategy.

Program development - The Keystone Center, a non-profit specializing in creating consensus solutions to public health problems, provided the leadership for this nutrition labeling initiative.

Program participants - Several large companies have said they'll participate in the voluntary program. Some of the companies include: Coca-Cola (US), ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg Company (US), Kraft Foods, PepsiCo (US), Unilever (US) and Wal-Mart. Other companies, such as Nestlé, are assessing the program and how it could be implemented in their company. It should be noted that some of these companies have been Keystone Center contributors.

Specific Smart Choice nutrition criteria - Foods and beverages that qualify will be items that follow these dietary guidelines.

Limiting nutrients to these benchmarks
  • Total Fat <35% of calories or <3 g per serving
  • Saturated Fat <10% of calories or <1 g per serving
  • Trans Fat 0 g (<.5 per serving)
  • Cholesterol < 60 mg per serving
  • Added Sugars <25% of total calories
  • Sodium <480 mg per serving

At least 10% Daily Value of one of these healthy nutrients must be present
  • Calcium, Potassium, Fiber, Magnesium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin E

Provides at least 1/2 serving of one of these key food groups
  • Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains, Fat-free/Low-Fat Dairy

Smart Choice products will also state calories per serving and servings per container on the front of the packaging to help consumers control their calorie consumption.

The bottom line - The intention of this voluntary program is to provide uniformity on the front of packages to help consumers select a product within specific health guidelines more quickly. We currently have the mandatory Nutrition Fact Label on the back of packages that provide most of the information necessary to make a healthy food or beverage selection.

The overall guidelines suggest healthy limits for key nutrients. However, the inclusion of foods or beverages is very loosely based related to fitting in one but not all of the criteria. This could mean that foods still contain high fructose corn syrup and carry the Smart Choice check mark. This program also leaves out identification of other key nutrition and health related information. The green check mark would tell you nothing about whether the item was organic, free of hormones or pesticides, or if it contains genetically altered products. While the program is based on a general set of guidelines determined by retailers, food and beverage manufactures, health professionals, research organizations and scientists, it does represent those with a vested interest in enhancing food and nutrition knowledge for consumers. It is easy to see that some of these groups have more to gain in the success of this program.

The PR and media campaign will be kicking into high gear in the coming weeks in an attempt to make this program a standard by which Americans select foods. It is important, however, to realize that just as manufacturers benefit from using Loopholes in Food Labeling and vague terms to suggest health benefits of their product over another, this loose set of voluntary guidelines will likely attempt to do the same. With the mandated FDA Nutrition Facts Label already required on the backs of all products, it would be best to use what you know about healthy choices and reading labels as well as a product's price and path to market to make your food and beverage selections. If the products you select happen to have the Smart Choice green check mark as well, all the better.

Do you think a new food labeling program is necessary? What type of uniform packaging information would you find most helpful?

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The factors of a good diet, is to live it in a noral life way. Eating as close to the natural food in cooking is the best way and will help you to lose weight more easily. It is self causitive in that there are no more nutrients than the natural food to break down, thereby the body easily asimulates it and the uncessary elements will easily digest and pass through your body, leave weight loss not as hard as we think. Report
I otally disagree with the marjarine vs butter idea. First of all margarine is man made. Butter is a natural sweet refreshing fat. Cholosterol is not always bad. It depends on the source. All animal fats are good for your body or God would not have made it so. There are many other roots as to why we need to leave cholosterol off. Simply ask yourself one question. If there were no processing plants and no man made materials, what would you do for fat? Man is living longer today through medical research but in the olden years, 50, 60 or 80 people lived long lives and they did not have processed food. Butter will easily leave your body where margarine has stickability to it. Report
Just my opinion and not meant to be negative, it is fine to give nutritionists, etc., gainful employment by creating yet another system like this with whatever nutritional advice is currently being touted by whoever says they have the bottom line on this controversial topic. :)

I only ask for food labels that correctly show how much of what is in the product so I can make my own choices based on what I and my doctor believe is correct for my body and life. That means (directed to food marketers) DON'T say a product has 0 g of trans fat (or whatever) when it has slightly under .5 just because the government says you can do that. It is a lie. Tell me it has .5 because even a tiny bit of trans fat is bad for me and if I think the product doesn't have any and it has .5 (or .4 or whatever), then I might be gullible enough to think I can eat more of it than is actually safe for my health.

25 percent of calories from added sugar also means that product is one quarter added sugar and that is too much for me and isn't a smart choice.

Actually, I see this is an old thread ... I'm not sure if the Smart Choice labeling system is still going on as I haven't noticed it for awhile in the store.

Just ignore this post and have a good day. :) Report
Honestly, it sounds like just a marketing ploy for those companies that will be involved. Report
As others have indicated, the intent of this type of program is to reduce the amount of time taken by the consumer to locate and consume healthy products. However, I am not overly excited about this. Sounds like I have read the labels even more carefully! No high fructose corn syrup for me, please! Report
So many buzz words in that article that put me on alert. Like 'voluntary program'and 'general set of guidelines'. What it boils down to is we, as consumers, are going to have to be on high alert even more because we may be lulled into complacency because we may see this Smart Choice green check and think "woohoo this is healthy" without reading the label! I have had to educate my husband who is diabetic with high cholesterol. He would see the label 'low-fat' on salad dressing and grab it, thinking "yum I can have this". What he did not know was MOST low fat items increase the sugar content proportionally to give them flavor. What was helping his cholesterol level was killing him with sugar. Buyers beware and ever vigilant, what you don't read about very carefully may well kill you (or at least be unhealthy!) Report
Forget all the cockamamy labels. Instead of spending all this money on labels, the money should be spent on a massive media campaign teaching the masses about how important it is to eat veggies and fruits, whole grains and legumes as the most important part of their diets, and to eat organic meats as a condiment and not the main entree. And, they should be taught how to interpret the Ingredient List on each packaged food. But, alas, this will never happen, too much money at stake for all these enormous corporation who could care less that Americans are dying by the droves from the food that they sell us. If everyone would only realize how much cheaper it is overall to buy foods as close to their original form than all of the processed food full of additives and chemicals added to enhance taste and shelf-life and we would stop buying their junk, maybe they would change what they sell us and our health insurance costs would definitely go down. The way I look at it, it is very costly to prolong life with drugs rather than by preventing disease with good food.
I'm a Pediatrician and it is an up-hill climb to try to compete with all the food product commercials and practice preventive medicine. As Americans we all feel entitled to eat whatever, unfortunately it catches up with us faster than we might think. My 2 cents. Report
How much more will this cost us? We should all need to read labels even if we have to turn to the back to read nutrition counts. KISS Report
I sounds like it's a step in the right direction. And even if it turns out to be just another way to get consumers to buy certain products, we're already reading the labels on the back packages anyway. We're not going to lose anything. We'll just keep reading like we've always done. :) I'm excited to see if what happens with the re-labeling plan! Report
I like the idea of standardization. I would like to see the carb count also. Was protein listed? I'd certainly like that included. I also think that certain criteria should be tightened up; i.e., less than one carb should be listed as one carb.

I think SALADARTIST's blog post (No. 3) says it all. Report
Nothing different than the marketing gimmicks we already have. Put "low fat" in big print on the front and tons of sugar on the fine print on the back (or vice versa). This is actually worse than what we have now in that the implication will be that the deceptive advertising food manufacturers now use is some how officially validated when in actuallity, reducing some limiting nutrient and jacking up another just makes it less likely that the average person will have a balanced diet. Report
Just another gimmick to try to sell products that aren't really healthy. I have learned to ignore all the hype on the front of the package and read the nutrition label. I still have a hard time finding products I can buy, with all the sugars, sodium and artificial ingredients that are hidden in the fine print. Report
I think it is nothing more than an attempt to sell more products. A majority of the people I know never check a label for anything and will be fooled into thinking they are making healthy, educated choices if they follow this system Report
Another marketing gimmick to the detriment of the public's health. Just read the list of participating companies and you KNOW that's what it is. All you need to read is the ingredient list: is it long (more than 5 items)? can you pronounce all of them? are there added sugars (syrup, -ose, malt are clues)? are there added colors or flavors? is there hydrogenated oil? If you answered yes to any of these except the pronunciation one, YOU DON'T NEED THIS IN YOUR BODY! Report
sounds like another way to sell people something. I always try to make sure I read the nutrition labels before buying a product to see not only the calories, fat, servings but also what is in it. This feels like a way to imply something is "good for you" while still using things like high fructose corn syrup and lots of salt. While I do not think everything you eat needs to be health food (I like my occasional piece of candy corn), I do think that products marketed as healthy, should actually be good for you. Report
Is this another way of dumbing things down? My husband and I both read label's nutrition information. If they want to add something how about giving us better information on Yeast and MSG which has been shown to increase weight. How about telling me what they mean by spices. I'd like that better than eating it to find out whether or not I react to it or not. Report
Just more confusion on product packages and more opportunities for food manufacturers to mislead consumers.
I will continue to rely on the nutrition facts label and opt for non-packaged/non-processed foods as much as possible. Report
I believe that one label with all of the information on it is all that is required. This new label lacks all kinds of important information. It is just a means of getting people to grab the product at a quick glance and not look to see the real nutritional label. All the manufacturers have to do is meet the minimums and they get the quick to see front label. A lot of crappy food can pass through this. Report
Requiring all of that stuff on a "per serving" basis seems pretty silly. Why not on a "per 100 calories" basis? 1 cup of chopped celery actually wouldn't qualify because it does not quite contain 10% of any of those nutrients - but a slightly larger serving size would qualify. Meanwhile a frozen meal that's 500 calories, 450mg of sodium, at the limit for fats, and barely clears the threshold on a nutrient or two would qualify. And while these guidelines do cut out the "least healthy" choices, they really don't do a whole lot to encourage smaller portions overall. Report
My grocery store actually tags the shelf where these items are. I will still read the labels before making a decision. Report
How lazy are americans if they can't just turn the product over to read the label that is already there on the back? And how dumb are they if they can't see something like corn syrup or MSG in the ingredients and know it is bad for them? Is this really what our society has come to? Report
Sounds like an attempt by the food industry to confuse people and stop them from looking at the mandatory food labelling that contains more information. They are only required to meet "one of" the requirements in a category, meaning any number of the others in that category could be way out of whack and unhealthy. Like all the foods that proclaim "low fat" in big, bold letters but have tons of sugar added to make up the taste difference, making the foods dangerous for diabetics. Nothing more than a marketing ploy. Report
I have used these things because they take the guess work out of it for me. You do have to be careful though and make sure you are getting the amount of calories you thing you are and make sure that it is one serving and not the per serving with more than one in the entire thing. I like the convenience and it works for many who just don't have the time or know how to do it on their own. Report
Hi, my name is Ellen an dI live in the state of New York. This is a great help for me and was sent to me by my daughter Kelly. Report
I too, think this is just a marketing thing. Sure, it will help the people who are already looking at their health and making smart choices, but for those who aren't, it's not going to make one bit of difference. Report
It will make identifying a healthier foods easier and maybe even get some people to start being nutrition label readers. However no matter how good the choice may be it is no good unless we are controlling how much we eat. Portion control is very important. Especially since it has been proven that when something is labeled healthy people think its ok to eat more of it. Report
Very interesting. Report
No, we don't need another labeling system.
I'm sure the marketing personnel are already figuring out how to make their products "look better" on the new labeling system, just as they've monkeyed around with portion sizes on current labeling. Besides, we need people to be aware of HFCS hydrogenated fats, and other issues that won't be addressed on the "front of box labeling".
Definately and eye opener Report
Thanks Jill, you pretty much summed up my comment...!

This makes me feel like its nutrition for dummies. There certainly seems to be a problem if we can't turn the can around 180 degrees to check the nutrition label on the back and certainly if new labeling is going to be included that comes with a "new and improved" price tag as well. If this is a voluntary program, it would seem appropriate that the price of new packaging won't trickle down. Report
Yes it's a guideline but I don't consider most of the products labeled as healthy for me. I will still rely on the nutrition label and ingredient list to know what I put in my mouth. I think big compagny have big bucks to make with this kinda of labeling. Many people will be lured into thinking that all those products are super healthy and in fact they are not. You can easily think a product is healthy is you just read what's on the front of the package, it's marketing, they don't want you to be healthy, they want you to buy their products! Report
seems like a good step in the right direction. It may not be perfect - but its progress. Report
The more information we receive the better. I only worry that the food industry will find ways around the label when using it. Report
Honestly, I don't find it necessary. i check for 2 things on labels only. Protein grams per serving and sugar per serving. I don't even look for calorie on the albel. If sugar is the first ingredient lsited i toss it back. We don't need another Fad. Report
It isn't just obese people that need to make healthier choices!!! Plenty of thin healthy looking people die of heart disease.
Any help on food labeling is a good thing. I think it will help a lot of people. Report
I think back to the "fat" days when I knew darned well enough that the foods I would choose were not healthy choices and which ones were better, but it wasn't until I really started to understand labels and how to interperet them correctly that really "got it".

Do I think that labels on the front stating "how healthy" this cereal is over the one next to it on the shelf is going to make us as a nation healthy..... Not a chance. Simply due to the fact that it will highlight the "whole grain" or "full serving of fruit / veg" and definitly not highlight the compounds of the ingredient list. So the best way, like always, is to watch the details and servings and to be as smart about what you put in your body as you can be.

If you are just starting out, or trying to build a new healthier habit by incorporating more nutritious foods then this would be a good starting point.... Choose a food that contains whole grain over "enriched flour" etc, but anyone who has seriously taken their health into their own hands more than likely has a better grasp on nutrition than what will be on a modified food label.

Best of luck to everyone and keep your eye on the prize!!! Report
I see too many obese people in grocery stores! Every little bit helps and if ONE of them takes the time to read these new labels, it might be an "ah ha" moment to get fit and healthy. Ya never know. Report
There will always be attempts to make things easier. But if people are not eating wisely now, what makes you think another label is going to make them buy a product? Those foods will go in the grocery cart along side the potato chips! Report
I don't think it is necessary but what I've read about the program sounds like it will result in better choices. As I understand it, if a product is high in one of the "no-no" categories, it cannot have the smart choice logo on the front. I think this is one of those wait and see kinds of things. Execution and implementation will be everything. Report
I don't care about new fad "low calorie" "reduced fat" things. I eat in moderation and I eat small portions about the size that comes in a Michelana's dinner. I like them because they are a small portion and you can't go back for 2nd's. No, I'm not interested. The only thing I have to watch is the sugar because of hypoglycemia. Report
Ugh, I'm so tired of people believing Joe-Schmo whoever who has no nutrition expertise (no, 99% of doctors have no education in nutrition), but when actual nutrition professionals attempt to come out with some sort of system to help people, suddenly you're all skeptics. Its not meant to be a cure-all - its supposed to be a tool to help just like other things you use. Report
The amount of sugar and salt a produce could contain and still receive this labeling seems high to me. I will continue to rely on the Nutrition Facts and the ingredient list when making my choices. Report
I agree with SLOLOSER. I would like the serving size of the fruit/vegetable or whatever it may be, to be equal to one "serving". It would make things so much easier. Then the dietary content per seving would reflect what we're actually eating. Report
I was just thinking about this yesterday while at the grocery store. General Mills has their own little bubbles now to tell you how great it is to give your kids and yourself their food. Almost everything "Whole Grain" was flying off the shelves into people's shopping carts on top of their Fat Free, Low Fat, No Trans-Fat products. Granted I haven't been shopping on a Sunday after church in forever, and I was picking up some new products/foods that friends had recommended, but I was getting the dirtiest looks as I juggled three boxes comparing the nutrition labels. I'll still be a box flipper but if these labels can remain unbiased (highly unlikely seeing as how eagerly Coca-Cola jumped on the bandwagon) I think it could help the percentage of the population that's too pressed for time and or lazy to read what is in their food and what amount they should be ingesting as a serving.

Also, I was grabbing frozen veggies to throw into soups it was interesting that almost every package of vegetables in the frozen aisle was in a "Butter Sauce" or "Lite Creme Sauce" (it really was spelled that way). It took a fair amount of searching to find Frozen Vegetables minus the baggage. Are vegetables really that terrible that they need a new wardrobe? Report
Foods will cheat to get around the smart choice label.

The ONLY way to ensure that you are eating well is to read the detailed label.
Labeling is definately necessary for those who are learning about nutrition. It will help them in the beginning. Other than that, probably not so much. Report
I myself have become a huge label reader. I think as more people become health conscious, it is important to have this information available. Possible marketing hype, but as long as all participants adhere to the restrictions / guidelines, then it will work! Report
It would be better if a serving was a real serving and not 1/2 a serving.

I wouldn't mind if a serving contained 1/2 a serving of fruit and 1/2 a serving of lowfat dairy, but it it's only 1/2 a serving of fruit then I question if the serving size is correct or whether they are just playing with the numbers. Report
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