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Why Smart Choices Not Necessarily the Healthiest

Why Smart Choices Not Necessarily the Healthiest

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey reveals that fewer than one in 10 U.S. high-schoolers consumes the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

According to some critics of the recently launched front-of-pack Smart Choices labeling system, the new program will do nothing to improve the statistic.

That's because instead of steering shoppers to better-for-you options that might be found elsewhere in the store, the system is designed to help shoppers make “smarter food and beverage choices within product categories,” like dessert, for instance.

The idea would be OK if the program got 100% manufacturer buy-in, or if it were presented as a way to highlight the healthier products offered by a single participating manufacturer.

ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, Unilever and PepsiCo are already on board, with at least 500 products — ranging from Cheerios to Lucky Charms — qualifying to bear the Smart Choices check mark. But what about suppliers who aren't interested in signing up for the pay-to-play program?

Might shoppers assume that if they don't see the Smart Choices check on a product it's because the item didn't qualify, and not because its marketer doesn't subscribe to the program?

The following statement, taken from Smart Choices promotional materials, steers shoppers toward the former conclusion: “No matter where you shop or what brands you buy the Smart Choices Program helps shoppers make smarter food and beverage choices within product categories in every supermarket aisle.” That's not necessarily true.

And what exactly are these choices smarter than? That's a question I asked myself as I scanned the list of products qualifying for the seal.

I'm no nutritionist but if I had to gauge the healthfulness of Smart Choices qualifier Bagel-fuls Bagel with Cherry Filling & Cream Cheese, it'd be pretty low on my list. But not as low as a breakfast/dessert item that I allow myself on very rare occasion: doughnuts.

Judging by the following explanation provided by Dr. Eileen Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science Policy at Tufts University, I'm already ahead of the game.

When asked to justify the placement of the Smart Choices label on boxes of Froot Loops, she told The New York Times the following:

“You're rushing around, you're trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and cereal,” she said. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

If you ask me, even the most frazzled of shoppers doesn't need a special symbol to figure that out. It's likely that others will draw a similar conclusion.

But Smart Choices isn't all bad. In fact, many manufacturers will likely strive to reformulate product for inclusion in the program. Among the recently enhanced nutritional profiles is that of Froot Loops, which now contains 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Doughnuts beware!

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