Smart Choices Program Aiming to Improve Food Purchasing Decisions
Going to the grocery store with the goal of buying the most healthful packaged foods can be tough. Very few of us have the know-how and the time to read the official nutrition facts label and list of ingredients on the back of the package, balance that with the marketing claims on the front, and make an informed decision. So over the past few years, grocery stores--including Hannaford and Food Lion, with the Guiding Stars program, as well as
But there's a different kind of system rolling out this fall, and rather than on shelf tags, you can find it right on the packaging of foods manufactured by
In a word: no. There are pros and cons to Smart Choices, as there are with other food labeling systems, and unfortunately, you aren't going to be able to abandon skepticism and critical thinking when you walk through those automatic supermarket doors. The big caveat is that while the new program's nutritional standards are "derived from" the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the government's pronouncement every five years on what foods and nutrients we should be consuming) and authoritative nutrition research, the recommended products aren't uniformly healthful. Cereals are a leading example. While foods in most product categories cannot qualify for a check if more than 25 percent of their calories come as added sugars, an exception was made for cereals, which can contain as many as 12 grams of sugar per serving. That allows for the inclusion of Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, and Cookie Crunch, all of which clock in at roughly 40 percent sugar.
The standards aren't perfect, but the program is a good start, says
In a letter to the general manager of Smart Choices, representatives of the
Smart Choices is not the only recent addition to the ratings game. Back in the supermarket aisle, a system called NuVal, available in chains including
The Nutrient-Rich Foods Index, a 5-point scoring system, will also roll out online this fall, says
A thousand ratings systems are blooming because it's going to be exceedingly tough to get nutritionists, the food industry, and activists to voluntarily agree on a single set of criteria, says
So if a Smart Choices check or NuVal score helps you pick a slightly better ice cream than you otherwise would, great. But they're not really essential. To eat what most nutritionists would agree is a healthful diet, a quick rule of thumb is to avoid the center aisles at the grocery store as much as possible and consume mostly foods in their least processed state, focusing on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish. "We shouldn't expect the sky from any of these systems," says Jacobson.
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