NYC and the Smart Choices Program

**UPDATED September 5, 2009**

I’ve been taking my time writing this post, trying to assimilate my thoughts so that I can be fair and also honest.  First of all, I appreciate so much being included in this event with such a small group of seasoned bloggers.  Why does re-reading that last sentence make me think of steak?  Anyway, here’s a picture of a few of us hanging out in Times Square.

times-square

Dawn, Carmen, me, Elizabeth

I have to admit, I was a bit star struck when I found myself sitting next to Busy Mom the first night at dinner.  Hers is one of the first blogs that I read when I started blogging back in the stone ages.  Of course, she is utterly delightful and down to earth and is probably going to hate me for making a big deal about meeting her.

And then there’s Dawn with her very own book.  (That’s my ultimate bloggy dream, by the way.  I’d love to compile my best posts into a book.  Of course only my mother would buy it, but seeing my name on the cover would be thrill enough.)

Carmen and I both hosted local Hebrew National Picnics with a Purpose last summer (hers was in VA Beach, and mine was here in Philly of course) so it was fun to actually meet her.

Also attending but not pictured were Asha from Parent Hacks, who is just darling, and Daniel from Consumer Queen (and King), who shares my passion for Starbucks.

And I got to see Meaghan, who was there representing Mom Central.  I met her at the circus last spring, and I’m looking forward to working with her again soon, hopefully with Disney On Ice this winter.  WOOT!

The folks at Weber Shandwick thought of everything and went all out to make our stay as comfortable and carefree as possible, right down to sending us AmEx gift cards before the trip to cover babysitting and incidental travel costs and providing us with Internet access in our hotel rooms.  It’s the little things, you know?

We stayed at Le Parker Meridian. I just love their slogan — Uptown. Not Uptight.  It was a VERY cool place to stay, and breakfast at their Norma’s restaurant was divine.  In fact, it was so lovely that I had to take a picture.

breakfast

After breakfast, we went to a Food Emporium where the lovely Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, nutrition expert and author of (warning: affiliate link) The SuperfoodRx Diet introduced us to the Smart Choices Program. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been in a more beautiful grocery store.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever USED the word beautiful to describe a grocery store before.

food-emporium

food-emporium

Wendy gave us a guided tour and explained the program in full as we followed along behind her armed with Flip Cameras and notebooks.  Of course I had neither because I’m NEVER prepared for anything.  Guess I should have been a Boy Scout.

wendy

So, getting down to bidness.  The Smart Choices program is basically a uniform labeling system that is intended to help consumers navigate the minefield that I think we can all agree is the modern day supermarket. Basically, their seal serves to pinpoint some of the healthier food choices on the grocery store shelves.  The program was created by a “coalition of scientists, academicians, health and consumer organizations, food and beverage manufacturers, and retailers.”  Approved products are labeled with the green check mark and also include a calorie and serving count on the front of the box to encourage correct portion sizing.

Nutritional criteria are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reports by the Institute of Medicine, and others.  In their efforts to maintain transparency and credibility, the current nutrition criteria is available to the public. This criteria is flexible and will change as scientific research changes and new dietary guidelines are released.  It is a not-for-profit organization, but companies do have to apply for approval and then pay to have the label applied to their products.  These funds all go back into the management of the program.  (The cost varies depending on the size of the company in an effort to keep it accessible for all.)

WHEW!  Got all that?

Them’s the facts.  Wanna know what I think?  Well I’m gonna tell you anyway.

First of all, I want to say that I highly respect nutrition scientists and the work that they do. I even got to meet a few; in fact, I bombarded them with questions the whole weekend, and they were wonderful about trying to answer my questions and help me sort through everything I’m reading and learning.  And I know that we are all after the same thing here, namely a healthier America.

We do have a public health crisis. We are the most overfed, undernourished country in the world.  Think about it.  That’s pretty hard to achieve.  Unfortunately, we get bombarded by so many conflicting messages about food and nutrition, and most people don’t have the time or inclination to try to filter through them on their own. So I believe that this type of program could be worthwhile.

Here’s what I like about it.

I like that they set a limit for nutrients to limit and a minimum nutrients to encourage. In other words, you can’t “make up” for bad ingredients by including good ones.  They still have to keep the amount of bad ingredients to a certain level to qualify.

I appreciate that this is a non-profit organization, and that the goal is to have the health of America at the forefront, not big business.

I also like how they are trying to encourage correct portion sizes by including a calorie count and amount of portions in the package right on the front.

That said, I have some reservations.  I’m sure you’re not surprised.

First of all, some of the products that “made the cut” surprised me. Many of the cereals and snack foods contain high fructose corn syrup.  I realize that they are still better choices than 75% of the crap we could be buying, and yet, we can do so much better.  I would love to see a distinction between added sugar and high fructose corn syrup in the nutritional criteria.  (That doesn’t appear to be there now, but I could be wrong.)

Through the program, foods are divided into 19 groups, and there are different nutritional qualifications for each group. This makes sense, as you can’t exactly compare apples to Teddy Grahams.  But on the other hand, perhaps we should be doing exactly that.  I would prefer to see a program that would encourage people to bypass the snack aisle entirely in favor of the produce and dairy aisles. And I while we’re at it, I would love to see the dairy aisles ridded of junk masquerading as food.  But that’s a post for another time.

Another concern I have is that smaller companies (and most companies specializing in more wholesome food are small) won’t be able to afford to pay to apply to the program and to revamp all of their packaging to include the Smart Choices seal and as a result, the food giants who already dominate the industry will once again get a leg up on the competition. In fact, I’d prefer to see a program that doesn’t require an application process at all.  I would rather see a program that seeks out the best choices on their own, rather than waiting for companies to apply, and even provides a way to help offset the cost of redoing the packaging.  Of course, this takes money.  And who would pay for that?  So I suppose that’s why this program is set up the way it is.

In addition to that, I feel that fresh produce once again gets the short end of the stick. All produce automatically qualifies, but there is no package on which to affix the green check mark.  I realize people KNOW that produce is good for us, but there is very little advertising (because profit margins are small) and nothing really pointing us away from processed foods and towards the good stuff.  And maybe that isn’t the point of this program, but I’m just thinking out loud about ways we can encourage people to eat more fresh foods.

When I questioned some of the criteria, particularly the issue of high fructose corn syrup, Wendy explained that the nutrition criteria are flexible and adaptable, and as research makes new discoveries, the standards will adapt. She also explained that there is a standard for “nutrients to limit” (such as saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars and sodium) and “nutrients or food groups to encourage” (such as whole grains, produce, calcium, fiber, vitamins A, C, and E, etc.)  In other words, a food can’t “make up for” the bad ingredients by including good ones. That, at least, is good, but I would like to see stricter guidelines for nutrients to limit.

She also pointed out, and this I understand, that the goal here is to improve overall public health, and they are trying to meet people where they are and encourage them to take baby steps to smarter food choices.  I realize that not everyone in America analyzes their food as I do (heck, I realize that 99% of America doesn’t analyze food choices as I do) and the products that earn the Smart Choices seal may very well be a huge improvement over the products sitting on the shelves in 75% of American households.  Perhaps this labeling system will help people make smarter choices than they are currently making, but I can’t help but fear that a label such as this will only serve to give people license to eat junk and feel like they are eating health food.

Finally, portion size and eating habits are HUGE issues in our culture, and more and more I’m convinced that it is the leading contributing factor to our health and weight control issues. The program does try to address this by providing a calorie count and serving size guideline along with their seal of approval, but I’m not sure that’s enough.  I fear that the green check mark will give people license to eat even more of it.  We tend to do that — if some is good for us, then more is better, right?  I mean, do you remember when Snackwells came out in the early 90s?  I was in college, and we thought we’d died and gone to heaven.  We could eat as many cookies as we wanted because they were fat-free, of course!  Oy.

All this to say, if you are currently one to read the backs of nutrition labels, keep reading them. Keep researching.  Decide for yourself what is nutritious for your family; don’t let the green check mark speak for itself.  Let the green check be a place to start, a way to pinpoint foods that might be worth looking at, but then take a look at the ingredients and make an informed decision.

And remember that the criteria for the Smart Choices Program is based on the low-fat guidelines that are still very much at the heart of mainstream medical and nutritional advice.  I believe that in time, the standards will adapt to reflect new research that is proving that it’s the industrial fats and sugars that are the cause of the obesity and health issues that plague Americans and not dairy fat and red meat.  But we have a ways to go yet.

**UPDATE**

My husband forwarded me this article today from the New York Times — For Your Health, Fruit Loops.  Now I know where those last two commenters came from! 😉   I felt like I was fair and balanced in this post, and I tried to keep the average consumer in mind, not the overly health-conscious such as myself, when I suggested that this program may be helpful to some.  But upon reading this article and seeing Fruit Loops and Fudgsicles bearing the Smart Choices seal, I have to say that my reservations about the program have been fully realized.

I truly enjoyed meeting the proponents of the program, but I’m sorry to say, I don’t see it as a step in the right direction.