Friday, September 4, 2009

"Smart Choices" Is Fool's Gold

The New York Times today ran a story today on the "Smart Choices" food labeling campaign that is being heavily endorsed by the biggest food industry players. The program claims to respond to consumers' need to be able to make quick, convenient choices on "healthier" food products. I mean, who has time to read through ingredient lists and nutrition labels? Well...I do. But, I know most people do not. Nonetheless, despite its good intentions, this food labeling system is inherently flawed.

Actually, this is a public health abomination! Walter Willett (whose name often appears on Veritas Health), is actually quoted in the article as saying "These are horrible choices." Enough said.

It is really no surprise to me that the article was titled "For Your Health, Froot Loops." As I've written before, sugary breakfast cereals seem to be constantly popping up in marketing to parents and kids as a nutritious breakfast food. It's as if food manufacturers fear people will find out that highly refined, processed cereals are not that great for them and switch to something that resembles what one might find at a farm somewhere (fruit, eggs, dairy, etc.).

So why am I so upset by this? It's just a few labels, right? Well, not exactly. This is an example of industry exploiting a true (Veritas) public health need. Consumers, parents especially, need to have a more simple, credible system on which to base their food choices. This, as Willett dually notes, is not a credible system.

It is not as though parents are choosing between donuts and Fruit Loops as Eileen Kennedy of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy is quoted as saying. Indeed, it will be more likely a consumers' choice between Froot Loops and some other "un-labeled" potentially healthier cereal product. One that possibly is unable, or unwilling to pay the annual $100,000 dues for the label.

As Kennedy notes, those products without the "Smart Choices" label will be perceived as nutritionally inferior, and, even worse, that those with the label are good for you. I believe there is a big difference between what is good for you and what is "better" for you...relative to something that is really "bad" for you. Come on, "Cocoa Puffs" do not provide any of the health benefits of cacao and there is no fruit in Froot Loops.

Other questions I have: What must companies do to get the "Smart Choices" label? And why are there such generous guidelines for what products qualify? Since when and who exactly decided that Coco Puffs and Froot Loops (in addition to many other similar products, I presume) are actually smart choices? This statement in the article is telling...
Ten companies have signed up for the Smart Choices program so far, including Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo and Tyson Foods. Companies that participate pay up to $100,000 a year to the program, with the fee based on total sales of its products that bear the seal.
Recently, I read that if it requires a label it probably isn't that good for you. Here's to simple criteria. In general, stick to foods that don't require a label to tell you that it is a smart choice.

No comments: