Smart Choices Program May Not be Overly Smart for Shoppers

smart choices logoI was recently invited to attend the launch of the Smart Choices food labeling system. Smart Choices is a front of packaging nutritional food label system developed by an alliance of U.S. food manufacturers and retailers. Products must meet specific guidelines to be included. The program is funded by the participating food companies – basically, a company pays for the label. Smart Choices is “designed to promote public health by helping shoppers make smarter food and beverage choices,” says the program’s press statements.

The basic premise couldn’t be more simple. Qualifying foods are stamped with a green check mark, which is designed to help a shopper make the healthiest choice within a particular category. (All fresh fruits and vegetables are automatically included – but they don’t get a green check mark because they are grown on a farm and not represented by a company.) If you are buying peanut butter, the green check mark container might contain the best choice in terms of health.

Or it might not. That’s the trouble with program. I think that the concept is great. It’s designed to help shoppers alleviate some of the angst that many feel standing in the grocery aisle surrounded by multiple products. How do you decide which to buy? It’s confusing to pick the healthiest food and if it could be done successfully, I’d be one of the most fiercest advocates you’d ever meet.

The program is designed to help those with limited shopping opportunities – maybe the elderly or poor without transportation – who are unable to shop in big supermarkets or drive long distances to multiple stores. With a limited selection, a shopper could still feel confident that they’d made a good choice. If executed correctly, it could conceivably speed up your shopping process – no more pondering labels – just pick the green check product and go!

My problem is that the food that is the healthiest choice does not always receive the green check. Case in point: Peanut butter. Skippy Creamy has received the green “Smart Choices” label. It’s understandable – peanut butter is a great food, high in protein and yummy. This particular version of Skippy is not one that I’d buy, as it contains hydrogenated oils. If I was shopping for Skippy, I’d buy the Natural Skippy, because it is simply peanuts and salt with no hydrogenated oils. But Skippy Natural doesn’t have a green check.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that the program is a great first step. I’m concerned that it doesn’t go far enough, though. A food can be granted the label if it shows that it is superior in one aspect – say, Lucky Charms, which has a high level of calcium – but it doesn’t take into account the other ingredients that may make that food a poor choice – Lucky Charms also has a high amount of sugar.

I’m skeptical of the program, but hopeful that some of the kinks can be worked out so as to benefit the public.

I was not paid to attend the launch, but my travel expenses were paid. I was under no obligation to write a positive review of the program or the trip, or even to write a review at all.

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