Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Not so smart

Americans deserve better food choices than some of what is on the shelves

at grocery stores

A NEW food labeling system called "Smart Choices" is mislabeled itself. It's more of a "Not as Bad as Other Choices" system.

Last year, in an effort to cut down on confusion at the supermarket and help consumers make healthier decisions, some of the nation's largest food companies agreed to common nutritional standards and a uniform labeling system that puts a simple, green check mark on the front package of items that qualify. With all of the competing information about what constitutes a healthy choice, a comprehensive system that clearly labels food would be a big help to Americans who are trying to win the nation's battle of the bulge. But this one doesn't do the job.

A walk down the cereal aisle reveals some of the drawbacks. In all, 203 breakfast cereals made the Smart Choices grade. If Keebler Cookie Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms - all concoctions that were on Mom's don't-even-think-of-asking-for-that list - are the smart choices, what are the bad ones? Is just being more nutritious than a chocolate doughnut with icing good enough?

Smart Choices is a pass-fail system, not one that grades individual performance. It makes no distinction between foods that might be fairly labeled as "not as bad for you" and those that are "not bad at all." The cereal aisle has more examples. Let's compare one-cup servings of several well-know brands: Cheerios, Froot Loops, and Shredded Wheat Miniatures. There's more fat and sodium in Cheerios than in Froot Loops (14 percent vs. 9 percent of the calories come from fat and there are 186 milligrams of sodium vs. 141), which is counterintuitive. There's more sugar in Froot Loops. Shredded Wheat gets 6 percent of its calories from fat, contains no sodium, and has a higher fiber content. Nutritionally, it's the better choice, but its green check mark is the same as that awarded the other products.

Smart Choices rates food in two ways, based on what they limit and what they add. The limits are a maximum of 35 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent from saturated fat, and none from trans fats; cholesterol lower than 60 milligrams per serving and sodium less than 480 mgs per serving, and added sugar of no more than 25 percent of the total caloric value. Bottled water, fruits, and vegetables automatically make the grade.

Products including cereals and other packaged foods also must meet the standard for what's added. They get credit for adding one or more nutrients to encourage Americans who don't get enough calcium, vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. All of that makes packaged foods appear to be more healthful, but they still fail when their calorie counts are measured against their nutritional value.

Label information is valuable "from the standpoint of bottom-line calories," says Giant Eagle nutritionist Judy Dodd, but it does not teach people to choose a variety of foods, particularly basic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and to eat them in reasonable portions.

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