Smart Choices?

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In recent years, many large food and beverage companies have created seals and logos to indicate “smarter” food choices. This summer, a common program was introduced to replace those of individual companies — and it has received widespread attention, most of it negative.

The Smart Choices Program, created by food and retail industry representatives together with outside experts on nutrition, is based — according to its proponents — on government nutrition guidelines. But as a recent New York Times article details, other prominent nutrition experts say that unhealthy foods are allowed to qualify for the program, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculure (USDA) have announced that they will be monitoring the effects of the new logo on grocery purchases. Critics complain that foods like Froot Loops and Fudgsicles qualify for the program because they have added nutrients and lack a disqualifying feature, such as being high in fat — not because they are actually healthy choices. Those who defend the program say that its standards are based on current government recommendations, which accept that added sugar can make a food more appealing and entice customers to get more of certain nutrients they may be lacking. In addition to displaying the common logo of the program (a green check mark with the words “Smart Choices”), qualifying foods display the number of calories per serving and the number of servings in the package. Details about nutrient guidelines can be found here.

Although it may be receiving the bulk of media attention, the Smart Choices Program isn’t the only widespread food-rating system. Our article, “Food Scoring For Better Nutrition,” describes another system called NuVal, which rates foods on a scale of 1–100 based on their content of good and bad nutrients and is being introduced throughout 2009 and 2010 (the system is called “ONQI” in the article). Unlike the Smart Choices logo, however, NuVal scores are not included on packaging and must instead be displayed next to the foods in grocery store aisles. NuVal has not encountered the criticism that Smart Choices has — probably because it rates all foods rather than choosing “smart” ones, and gives scores to foods that are unlikely to surprise anyone (for example, 100 for strawberries and 1 for regular soda). More information can be found on the NuVal Web site. The article also describes Guiding Stars, a system developed by the Hannaford supermarket chain that gives foods zero to three stars based on their nutrient content.

What do you think — is it a stretch to call Fudgsicles a “smart” choice? Should a food recommendation system take the average shopper’s choices into account and recommend foods that are “less bad,” or should it only recommend truly healthy choices at the risk of being ignored? Is it enough for grocery stores to adopt food scoring systems voluntarily, or should the government encourage — or force — them to join? And do you have any ideas about what should be included on the front of food package labels? Leave a comment below!

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