by Marion Nestle
Sep 26 2009

The Not-So-Smart Choices story continues…

We now have a piece mentioning the Smart Choices program in The Economist as well as a letter from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, the member of the Smart Choices program committee to whom the quotation about Froot Loops, “Better than a doughnut,” is attributed.

The Economist discusses the booming business of functional foods: “Consumers are swallowing such products, and the marketing claims that come with them.” It mentions the fuss over Smart Choices, but the best part is the caption to the illustration that comes with it.

It's practically spinach

It's practically spinach

And, I’ve been sent a copy of an e-mail letter to alumni from Dr. Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, explaining her participation in the Smart Choices program:

Dear Friedman School Alumni,

There is an issue that has emerged as a result of a NY Times article that appeared in the business section on Sept 5, 2009. Since I believe I was grossly misquoted in the article and that the article does not accurately depict the Smart Choices program, I want to share with you some background on this program and my involvement.

In 2007, I was invited to join the Keystone Roundtable on Food and Nutrition. Keystone is a non-profit organization that brings individuals together around potentially controversial issues. The roundtable included health organizations, food companies, retailers, and academic researchers from a variety of U.S. universities. I was one of the academics who served pro bono on the roundtable. Initially, we met to discuss revisions to the FDA nutrition label. Ultimately, we decided to address the issue of Front of Pack Labels on food products. The final recommendations of the group were based on consensus science including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA definition of healthy, WHO recommendations and the Institute of Medicine Scientific reports. The program that emerged from this meticulous process is called “The Smart Choices Program (SCP).” Food products that qualify as “better for you” get a check mark as well as disclosure of calories per serving and number of servings in a product.

I believe there are three major advantages to this program in addition to the rigorous scientific underpinnings.

First, the SCP is intended to improve food patterns at point of purchase – the super markets. To do this, food products are divided into 19 categories – based on research – that reflect how people buy food. All fruits and vegetables without additives automatically qualify.

Second – and a major plus – the program was tested prior to launch with consumers.

Finally, food companies who participate in the program have agreed to abandon their proprietary systems and adopt one system – the Smart Choices Program.

Thus, thousands of products using the SCP check mark will reach millions of consumers. It is a credit to the social responsibility of participating companies that because of the strict nutrition criteria, fewer of the individual food products will qualify for the Smart Choices Program.

As a non-industry board member, I have been targeted by negative emails, letters and even some phone calls. I regret that some of this hostility has been focused on the Friedman School and Tufts University and must note that I serve as an individual on the Smart Choices Program. Tufts University is not involved with it….

As nutritionists, we know that, in many ways, the science of nutrition is straight-forward. It is the translation of science into action that is often complex and can be contentious. Within our field, there are many opinions on how to improve the nutritional well-being of people worldwide. It is precisely at an academic institution like Tufts that we should have a respectful and open dialogue about these issues….For additional information, you may also want to go to….

The letter gives me a chance to repeat a few points that I have made in previous posts (see Smart Choices, Scoring Systems) and on the general matter of corporate sponsorship of nutrition activities (tagged as Sponsorship).

First, this enterprise was paid for by participating companies to the tune of $50,000 each for a total of $1.67 million.  Social responsibility?  I don’t think so.  Companies usually get what they pay for.  Hence: Froot Loops.

Second, a comment on the research basis.  I have written extensively in Food Politics and in What to Eat about the influence of food companies on federal dietary guidelines and the compromises that result.  Even at its best, the process has to be impressionistic and cannot be either meticulous or rigorous.  The guidelines are meant to be generic advice for healthful eating.  They were never meant to be used – and cannot be used – as criteria for ranking processed foods as healthful.

The FDA standards for comparison to Daily Values on food labels are also worth a comment.  They were the basis of Hannaford supermarkets’ Guiding Stars program, which awards one, two, or three stars to foods that meet FDA-based criteria.  By those criteria, Froot Loops does not qualify for even one star.  If Smart Choices had relied on FDA criteria, such products would not be check marked.

Dr. Kennedy makes some excellent points in her letter and I particularly agree with one of them: nutritionists differ in opinion about how best to advise the public about diet and health.  Mine is that the Smart Choices program is a travesty and the sooner it disappears, the better.

September 29 update: The L.A. Times weighs in with a story (which quotes me).  It’s got another great comparison from a member of the Smart Choices committee:  “Cereal provides an array of nutrients and is a good breakfast…especially if the alternative is a sweet roll.”  My son, who saw the story, has this comment: “Hey! I think Froot Loops are a “Smart Choice.” After all, they have “froot,” don’t they? And maybe no nutritionist you know would recommend Froot Loops for breakfast, but what about for lunch or dinner?”

  • “It’s pracitically spinach”, priceless!

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  • I agree wholeheartedly that the Smart Choices program needs to go away. There is no amount of research that will convince me that Froot Loops are health food. Research and “Big Food” are generally not good bedfellows and this situation illustrates very clearly why.

    However, I suppose what resonates with me the most about this is that it showcases the big bucks that are made simply because millions of Americans are unable or unwilling to cook for themselves. Certainly lack of time is a factor, but as a Registered Dietitian with formal culinary training, I see a lack of basic cooking and food identification skills as a major stumbling block as well. My work involves filling in this knowledge gap…gaps that are sometimes rather shocking.
    Unfortunately as long as these conditions exist, I don’t see reliance on processed convenience foods going away. The very least we can do as responsible nutritionists is to avoid bestowing credibility on something that is so deeply flawed from a common sense standpoint.

  • Janet Camp

    Dr. Kennedy’s letter fails to clarify her “grossly misquoted” remarks from the NY Times article. Neither does she give much of a defense for her involvement in this fiasco of a program. The letter is a lot of spin and not much substance–kind of like Froot Loops.

    Ms. Tharalson: I share your dismay at the lack of basic food knowledge/preparation skills and am encouraged to hear that you are involved in redressing this issue. I post here frequently about common sense solutions to many of the topics that come up. I fear that readers will find me tiresome, but your post convinces me that it is necessary to let a younger generation know that there are alternatives to packaged and processed food and that one need not even have special training in order to use them.

  • Companies do get what they pay for. Let’s all just use some common sense, shall we?

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    Froot Loops not healthy? Not a Smart Choice? What do you mean?
    Well if they didn’t have so much dye in them. Or so much added refined sugar. Or so much highly refined wheat powder.
    So what exactly IS healthy about Froot Loops? If you take out those things what is left? a sprinkle of vitamins?
    Oh and it also has Trans Fat–which needs to be removed from GRAS, generally recognized as safe, since it isn’t. Trans Fat is toxic.

    An easy benchmark for this program would be no food could qualify if it contains PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL aka Trans Fat. The safe amount for humans is 0 grams. There are many reasons why this program displays that it is not created for people’s health, but to promote product, but including any food that has added Trans Fat is just insane.
    People’s health over Corporate Wealth already!

  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    Good point:
    “there are alternatives to packaged and processed food and that
    one need not even have special training in order to use them.”
    Fruit is an easy one.

    Michelle, yes we should use some common sense and when nutrition professionals/etc. see a program that portrays to have consumers’ health as their main concern, but really are attempting to persuade people to push more product–highly processed products especially, it is only right to challenge this deception. People are already confused enough about What To Eat. Doing what is right is common sense.

  • As a nutritionist I am concerned about the Smart Choice program. With todays profusion of misinformation about nutrition (my biggest pet peeve the: Eat This, Not That books)when a program with an authoritative sounding name puts a blessing on food that is junk, people will have one more justification for eating these foods.

    The problem with this whole thing is that it dismisses just using common sense; a trait everyone has but come to rely too much on sensationalism to verify any uncertainty

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