by Marion Nestle
Sep 23 2009

Update on not-so-Smart Choice labels

Three items on the Smart Choices front (make that four – see below):

1.  Let’s start with the great video by ABC News [if the link doesn’t work, go to the ABC News site and search for Food Label Fight].  It features an incredulous Mark Bittman pulling check-marked products off supermarket shelves, along with Richard Kahn defending the program.  Kahn, as I discussed in What to Eat, defended the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) implied endorsement of Post sugary cereals.  When Jane Brody wrote about this in the New York Times, the Association promised to remove its logo from the products and did so after a bit.

2.  The letter-writing campaign organized by Change.org has had the same effect: “Victory: Change.org Members Force Health Organizations to Back Away from Food Labeling Ploy.”

The new marketing program, called “Smart Choices,” is a front-of-the-package nutrition-labeling program designed in theory to help shoppers make smarter food choices.

But as the New York Times exposed last week, the selections are anything but healthy. One of the selections is Froot Loops, which was chosen, according to one board member, because “it’s better for you than donuts.” (No, we’re not kidding. We couldn’t make this up.)

Despite the program’s dubious standards, it maintained the appearance of legitimacy because researchers associated with three reputable organizations – American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University – were on its board.

In response, thousands of Change.org members sent letters to the presidents of these three major research institutions urging them to remove their name from the program.

The result? All three organizations responded to the pressure this week by publicly distancing themselves from the food labeling scheme and officially asking Smart Choices to remove their name from its website and marketing materials – thereby publicly embarrassing and discrediting the program.

Fine, but this one isn’t over until the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) also extricates from its commitment to manage the program – a clear conflict of interest.

3.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is asking for nominations to a committee to study front-of-package labeling (what follows is edited from the request letter):

The IOM is searching for experts in the scientific, technical, and medical professions to be considered for a study committee titled Examination of Front of Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (Phase I). The sponsors are the CDC and FDA.   The Phase I committee will undertake a review of front-of-package nutrition rating systems and symbols…[and] will also plan for a Phase II.

Phase I will (a) identify front-of-package systems being used, (b) consider their purpose and overall merits, (c) identify the criteria underlying the systems and evaluate their scientific basis, (d) consider advantages and disadvantages, (e) plan Phase II which will consider the potential benefits of a single, standardized front-of-package food guidance system regulated by FDA (my emphasis).

Send the names of candidates to front-of-pack@nas.edu by October 5, 2009. You do not need to contact the individuals you nominate.

This is great news but I’m way too impatient.  This two-phase process will take years. Is the FDA really going to have to wait that long to take action on front-of-package labels such as Smart Choices?

FDA: How about issuing a moratorium on all front-of-package labels until the committees do their work?

4.  Update, September 24: On that very issue, Congresswoman Rosa de Lauro has asked the FDA to do an investigatation of the Smart Choices program.  Excellent idea!

  • Janet Camp

    Wow–the letters worked! Unlike the ones I write to Congress.

    This whole front-of-package business has to be honest and not simply a marketing tool. The only packaged products to get a green light should be things like old-fashioned oats, dried beans, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, canned/frozen veggies (w/o too much salt in the case of canned), nuts and other actual food that has actual nutritional value. What needs to be in plain sight is the serving size (small enough to shock people when they actually look at it) and the TOTAL calories in the package (not just that one tiny serving).

    I read a lot about the “amazing choice of products” at the American supermarket, but what I see is a whole lot of packaged junk and a dwindling supply of basic foodstuffs which get ever-smaller shelf space. This trend accompanies our ever-expanding waistlines.

  • Carmen Brissette

    I’ve just recently discovered your wonderful blog and am passing on the link to friends. Perhaps you’ve addressed this earlier: is the American Society of Nutrition sensitive to political pressures? Are they different in spirit and make-up than are the American Diabetes Organization, the American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University?

  • http://consciouscrumbs.com Bobbi

    I’m thrilled the letter campaign had an impact. As I write this there are nearly 4000 signers. But in reality that is a paltry number. I sent the link to the petition to over fifty people – many of them parents of small children. In my email/plea I indicated that it would take them under 60 seconds to sign it. Only four of the fifty went on to sign it.

    In conversations with friends and family they say they care about their health and want to provide healthy meals for their children. Yet, I get the feeling that ignorance is bliss. It’s as if hey don’t want to know what they are eating, because they don’t want to take responsibility and make changes, which is why the front of label programs are a jackpot for the food manufacturers. Yes, in our perfect world the government organizations would take that responsibility, but in the meantime, healthy, safe food choices remain our burden. OK – sorry for the rant.

    Marion – I can’t thank you enough for all that you do to raise awareness regarding the food we eat.

  • Aliza

    Thanks for the yet another great post Marion! the ABC news video doesn’t seem to work and I’d love to check it out – can you post another way to find the clip?

  • Auralee

    I just searched the Smart Choices web site for my favorite cereal, Shredded Wheat ,n, Bran. Ingredients: 1) Whole Grain Wheat and wheat bran, 2) BHT as a preservative.

    It’s not there! This cereal was recommended to me by a gastroenterologist when I was suffering from IBS! It’s not in their smart choices!

    What a freaking scam.

  • http://wellescent.com/blog/siteblog.php Wellescent Health Blog

    It is very unfortunate that such programs operate more as a marketing machine than as a means to legitimately inform the population regarding food choices that can benefit their health. The question is: Is it lobbying that corrupts the program or is it simply built as a tool to enable product sales for certain food producers?

  • Janet Camp

    Aliza: Just go to abc.com and search their site or click on video

    Auralee: It is truly shocking that Shredded Wheat is not included when Froot Loops is! If this doesn’t prove the useless commercialism of this program, I don’t know what does.

    Marion: Thank you again for being a voice of reason in a sea of garbage.

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  • Sharon Bookwalter

    I’d like to nominate C&J Nutrition: Stephanie Clarke MS, RD (stephanie@cjnutrition.com) and Willow Jarosh MS, RD (willow @cjnutrition.com) for the Examination of Front of Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols.

  • Auralee

    Other cerals the are so-called “smart” (NOT!)

    Frosted flakes
    Lucky Charms
    Cocoa Crispies
    Cookie Crisp
    Cocoa Puffs

    This should be criminally misleading advertising to call these things smart choices.

  • Dean Jarosh

    To the Nominating Committee of IOM.

    I would like to nominate C&J Nutrition: Stephanie Clarke MS, RD (stephanie@cjnutrition.com) and Willow Jarosh MS, RD (willow @cjnutrition.com) for the Examination of Front of Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols. Their web address is http://www.cjnutrition.com.

    Thankyou, Dean

  • Brandon Baker

    On the “Smart Choices” website, it explains that breakfast cereals are chosen as candidates for the Smart Choices label because “cereal eaters are more likely to have healthier body weights and greater vitamin and mineral intakes.”

    The only problem with this finding is that the two journal articles cited to back it up were both funded by General Mills, and a co-author of one of the articles is actually employed by General Mills.

    In the CBS video that Marion shared, Richard Kahn says that ready-to-eat cereals are OK because they only account for 5% of children’s daily sugar consumption. In a society where children are taking in copious amounts of sodas, desserts, and other junk food, this isn’t really saying much. Any product whose first ingredient is sugar shouldn’t be endorsed by any organization that claims to have the public’s best interests in mind.

    If we are so concerned with children getting their vitamins and minerals, we should be looking for creative ways to get them to WANT to eat fruits and vegetables. It can be done, but as long as we are content with having corporations doing all the creative thinking for us, this will be the result.

    Thank you, Marion. You are doing the public an invaluable service.

  • http://homeownerinsurancehq.com/ HO

    It is very unfortunate that such programs operate more as a marketing machine than as a means to legitimately inform the population regarding food choices that can benefit their health. The question is: Is it lobbying that corrupts the program or is it simply built as a tool to enable product sales for certain food producers?

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