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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Universal guidelines for healthful groceries may be slowly coming to a store near you

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Smart Choices Program, launched in August, deemed Froot Loops nutritious enough to sport a big checkmark on the front of boxes signifying that choosing the cereal was indeed smart. The news media and consumer advocacy groups had a field day with that one, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration vowed to protect the public against any misconceptions caused by the labeling system.

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Things came to a head Friday, when Smart Choices announced it would cease activity and pledged to work with the FDA to develop a universal system for posting nutrition information on the front of food packages.

The front-of-package labeling movement has been building steam for years, with food companies, retail outlets and groups such as the American Heart Association promoting their own systems. The idea behind such systems is that consumers are unwilling or unable to make sense of the nutrition facts panels that have appeared on food packages since the mid-1990s. Not only are all those numbers apparently beyond our collective ken, but turning the box around to see the panel is such a pain, right?

So the center aisles of the grocery store are like Times Square these days, with competing health logos screaming from every shelf. Some experts worry that all those messages may lead consumers to tune out nutrition information altogether.

That's one of the reasons organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have for years called upon the FDA to establish a universal, comprehensive and objective system for package fronts. The agency has recently indicated that it's coming around; it enlisted the independent Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government on health and nutrition issues, to look into the matter.

So it looks as though we're headed toward a universal labeling system. The big question remains: What approach will work best?

First of all, we shouldn't dismiss the Smart Choices format. The folks who created it offer credible, if not entirely persuasive, support for awarding Froot Loops a checkmark, despite the fact that the stuff's made largely of sugar.

Joanne Lupton, a nutrition professor at Texas A&M University who helped formulate the program's guidelines, told me a few days before Smart Choices was halted that the program evaluates foods according to the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans (last issued in 2005 and due for updating next year) and other widely accepted standards. Only foods containing guideline-acceptable amounts of ingredients such as saturated fat and sodium were eligible for checkmarks; beyond that, each needed to provide at least one of a handful of key vitamins, minerals or food groups, such as whole grains. (You can view the requirements on the Smart Choices Web site, http://www.smartchoicesprogram.com.)

At first, Froot Loops didn't make the grade, Lupton says. So Kellogg retooled the cereal, reducing the sugar and boosting the fiber. That may sound devious, but Lupton says spurring manufacturers to make their products more healthful was a goal of the program.

Having said all that, there's another matter that makes me think Smart Choices wasn't so smart. For all its carefully calibrated calculations, the program wasn't designed to help me find the most healthful foods in the supermarket. Only companies that paid to join the program, including Kraft Foods and Kellogg, got the big checkmarks. So while whole-grain, low-sugar, nutrient-packed Post Grape-Nuts may be among the most healthful breakfast cereals, it has no checkmark because Post isn't part of the system.

And no way was Smart Choices steering you toward the local apples in the produce section. Not unless the orchard owner had paid up.

That's why I like Guiding Stars, a system developed by the New England grocery chain Hannaford that's in place in Food Lion stores around here. Guiding Stars standards apply to all foods in the store, no matter who makes them; those with the highest nutritional value get three stars, the slightly-less-nutritious items receive two stars, and items that offer good, but not, er, stellar, nutrition bear a single star. Tellingly, about three-quarters of the items in the store have zero stars.

Grape-Nuts, by the way, gets three stars.

Guiding Stars (which is available via licensing agreements to other stores) is just one of the models that could be followed for all foods. Or we could adopt something like the traffic-light system that's been in use in Europe for a few years (green for stuff you should eat lots of, red for foods to eat in moderation). Or we could listen to Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Washington Center for Obesity Research in Seattle, who proposes a system that takes price into consideration to help people get the biggest nutritional bang for their buck.

The Institute of Medicine and the FDA have many issues to sort out before the nation can take the universal front-of-box nutrition labeling plunge. Here's one of the biggest: As yet, there's not much evidence that such labeling translates to better eating or to better health.

Guiding Stars and the traffic-light system have the longest track records, but their three-year histories are too short to meaningfully measure buyer response and to understand the programs' effect on health. For now, we'll all just have to muddle our way through the grocery store, making the smartest choices we can.


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