Front of the Pack

Sep 30, 2009

Much has been written about the new Smart Choices logo, which debuted this summer. The green icon, together with a statement about a product's calories per serving and servings per package, can now be found on the front labels of 500 food products from eight companies, including General Mills, ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Sun-Maid, Unilever, Tyson, and Kellogg Co.

Prior to adopting the Smart Choices logo, several of the aforementioned food giants had been using their own front-of-package (FOP) icons on their own products. PepsiCo had its Smart Spot logo; Kraft, its Sensible Solution logo. More than 10 other independent FOP food labels also exist in the marketplace. Smart Choices hopes to replace these with one uniform standard to alleviate label confusion for shoppers.

While many applaud the effort to create one standardized logo, criticisms of the program still abound. One is whether the logo is trustworthy. While scientists, public health advocates, and health organizations made up the committee that developed the program and its criteria, so did food industry representatives and retailers. Food brands must also pay a fee to participate. Thus, naysayers claim that interests in the program are mixed. They say that the program's criteria may be lax—and that the foods in the program may not necessarily be all that healthy. Food companies would obviously like to see the logo on more, not fewer, products.

On the Smart Choices Web site, visitors can view a partial list of the branded foods now under the program. Cereals such as Cocoa Krispies and Frosted Flakes are there. On The Atlantic's Web site, nutrition professor Marion Nestle wrote, "How can Froot Loops be a 'Smart Choice'?"

However, the Smart Choices standards adhere to the most recent Dietary Guidelines, as well as to other federal standards. Per the 2005 Dietary Guidelines (and soon to be amended when the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are published), Smart Choices requirements include limiting six key factors: total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugar. Also adhering to the Guidelines, products must encourage certain healthy food groups and nutrients such as dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and E.

Should Smart Choices achieve widespread industry adoption (and it stands a chance of doing so, considering that many competitive brands have agreed to come under the same labeling umbrella), will a simplified, uniform label actually help consumers make healthier food choices? Commenting on a blog, one mother wrote that such a label would of course help her grocery shop more efficiently, especially when she has her three-year-old child in tow. On the other hand, a respondent to another blog wrote that Smart Choices is "all about marketing, not health."

And where does FDA stand on the matter? Although the agency did not participate in any of the program's decision making, FDA observers were present during meetings to provide data about nutrition labeling and its impact on consumers. An FDA representative told me, "FDA believes that the Smart Choices nutrition labeling program is a positive step that industry has taken—the initiative to reduce the number of FOP nutrition labeling programs on the market."

FDA also says that it will be watching to ensure that the logo is not abused and used on foods that are, in fact, unhealthy. "Additionally," the representative told me, "we believe that consumers should still be encouraged to look at the Nutrition Facts label to obtain the nutrition information for individual food products. The Nutrition Facts label provides a more complete nutritional profile of food products than a logo or icon."

And indeed, the Smart Choices logo is like all FOP logos—designed to be simple and easy to understand. If it keeps consumers from reading the more complex and informative Nutrition Facts panel, it may be doing a disservice.

In the end, however, only consumers control their purchasing and eating decisions. And if they continue buying unhealthy foods, manufacturers will keep making them—regardless of what logo is on the front of a package.

Jennifer Kwok