New 'Smart Choices' Food Labels Are Deceptive

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Wouldn't it be nice if foods came with labels to explain how healthy they are? Well, yes, you're right: They do. OK, but wouldn't it be even nicer if the food industry just got together and told us which of their processed food products constitute healthier choices?

Maybe they could just slap a big checkmark on the front of the package that screams, "don't think; just eat this."

Welcome to the bizarre world of the Smart Choices Program, where Lucky Charms cereal is one such "smart choice" for confused consumers wondering if the latest colorful marshmallow addition tips the marshmallow-to-sugary-oat ratio to something suitable only for honeybees and hummingbirds.

Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes and just about any other commercial breakfast cereal also get the Smart Choices seal of approval, a big green checkmark, apparently for being a smarter choice for breakfast compared to rock candy.

It's healthy, trust us

The program, underwritten by 10 of the largest food companies doing business in the United States, debuted in August. Smart Choices is "designed to promote public health by helping shoppers make smarter food and beverage choices," according to the program's press statements. This is an attempt to standardize and simplify "front-of-pack" nutrition labeling used independently by food companies, which has become meaningless, if not deliberately misleading, in recent years.

I'm all for simplicity. Jack LaLanne, the 94-year-old fitness and nutrition expert still healthy enough to work out intensely for two hours a day, has a simple philosophy: If a human made it, he doesn't eat it.

The primary problem with the Smart Choices labeling system is that the healthiest foods don't have labels because they don't come from a factory. While it is true that all fruits and vegetables automatically make the list of foods that would qualify for a Smart Choices checkmark, you're not going to see a checkmark on a stalk of kale. That's because a farmer made the kale, not ConAgra Foods or General Mills.

So, in the end, the Smart Choices system merely makes highly processed foods appear healthy when they are not.

Only the healthiest junk foods

The second problem is that the guidelines are so skewed by industry that they are laughable. Consider the separate categories for grains and cereal. Cereal is indeed a grain. But a separate category was needed, with a separate list of criteria to earn that coveted Smart Choices checkmark, in order to accommodate breakfast cereals with up to 12 grams, or 3 teaspoons, of added sugar.

Eggs, far healthier than most of the 500 food products on the Smart Choices list, can't earn a checkmark because they have too much cholesterol. This is despite the fact that saturated fats in products such as margarines (many Smart Choices to choose from) raise blood cholesterol levels far more so that eggs do.

But if eggs do seem too rich for you, try some Hellman's mayonnaise or a low-fat Fudgsicle, two more Smart Choices.

The government isn't amused. The Food and Drug Administration teamed up with the Department of Agriculture to send the Smart Choices Program a letter on Aug. 19, explaining politely that they were being monitored. The agencies explained in the letter that they would be "concerned" if the Smart Choices labeling "had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains."

Is the Smart Choices labeling scheme doomed to fail? Its longevity is questionable, for any consumer relying solely on Smart Choices checkmarks will surely be diabetic, obese or even dead within a few years.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.