Maybe a Not-So-Smart Choice

Oct. 26, 2009
The front-label program, created by nine top U.S. food manufacturers, suspends program after FDA letter.

The Smart Choices nutrition labeling program -- created in 2008 by nine large U.S. food processors and meant to give consumers a front-of-package nutrition symbol -- "voluntarily postpone[d] active operations" Oct. 23 following a hailstorm of criticism that ended with a cautionary letter from the FDA.

Two days earlier, the FDA posted a letter on its web site concerned that such programs may mislead consumers about the health benefits of certain foods, and that shoppers may become less inclined to read the detailed nutrition information on the back, in the FDA-created Nutrition Facts panel.

"The agency is currently analyzing [front-of-package] labels that appear to be false or misleading," the letter read. "We are assessing the criteria established by food manufacturers for such symbols and comparing them to our regulatory criteria."

Kellogg's Froot Loops became a poster child for criticism of the Smart Choices label. While its 12g of sugar (per serving) was within the Smart Choice program's self-defined limits, regular food-industry critics called it "half a box of grains and half sugar."

Without naming products, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg somewhat agreed. "There are products that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50 percent sugar," she said during a call with reporters and reported by Associated Press.

The agency is developing proposed nutritional standards that would have to be met before manufacturers place such claims on their packages, Hamburg said. She added that she hoped industry would cooperate with the FDA to develop standardized "labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets."
Manufacturers that currently use the logo apparently can continue to do so, said a Smart Choices board member.

Mike Hughes, chair of the Smart Choices Program, said in a statement that Smart Choices is based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "We believe in the science behind the Smart Choices Program. We also look forward to the opportunity to participate in FDA's initiatives on front-of-package labeling," he said.

"Our program is entirely transparent," said Richard Kahn, a Smart Choices board member and former chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetic Assn., quoted by ABC News. "The criteria have been published and available to all Americans. The whole process took about two years to develop. The FDA was actually at the table at virtually all the meetings.

"It's not the perfect program but it's a program that's going to move America," he said. "There's nothing about these criteria that are not grounded in science."
The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. said in a statement: "Manufacturers have already introduced or reformulated over 10,000 products to reduce calories, sugar, sodium, fat and trans fat or to enhance their nutritional profile, such as with the addition of whole grains or minerals. This initiative, along with the many valuable programs and initiatives that are under way, can serve as another important step in improving the health and wellness of the American public."

The Smart Choices program included ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Pepsico, Sun-Maid and Unilever.

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