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In the latest example of the food industry’s close attention to health-and-wellness issues affecting consumers, the “Smart Choices Program” made its official debut last week, its green check mark symbol now appearing on of hundreds of products in supermarkets and other retailers across the United States. The first-ever uniform front-of-pack nutrition-labeling program was developed by a broad coalition of scientists, nutritionists, consumer organizations and food industry leaders to promote public health by helping shoppers make informed food and beverage choices within product categories.
In contrast to nutrient-scoring systems, rankings or store-based programs, Smart Choices uses the check mark logo on the front of a product package to provide consumers with “at-a-glance” assurance that a product has met stringent science-based nutrition criteria derived from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reports from the Institute of Medicine, and other sources of authoritative nutrition guidance. Qualifying products will also include an on-pack indicator that shows calories per serving and servings per container.
Participating companies with their own nutrition-labeling symbols have starting using the Smart Choices logo instead, which the coalition hopes will bring clarity and consistency to the U.S. marketplace across stores and brands.
“The coalition worked very hard to develop nutrition criteria that met the highest of standards, and a symbol consumers would appreciate and recognize when making choices at the point of purchase,” noted Eileen T. Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “By providing a single, simple communication on the front of the package, the Smart Choices Program can help alleviate confusion in the supermarket and help today’s busy shoppers make smarter choices for their families in store and at home.”
About 500 well-known products, including ones manufactured by ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Sun-Maid, Tyson and Unilever, have already qualified for the Smart Choices Program designation in the program’s 19 categories, which include beverages, cereals, meats, dairy and snacks. By May 2010, over 1,200 items will carry the symbol and calorie indicator.
“Additional products will be added from the various manufacturers as more items qualify, or are reformulated to receive the check mark,” a spokeswoman for the program told Progressive Grocer.
“The power of the Smart Choices Program is its basis in collaborative industry development, built on consensus science and its ongoing ability to be flexible and adaptable as nutrition science evolves,” says John LeBoutillier, SVP, Foods U.S. at Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Unilever. “This new front-of-pack nutrition labeling system aligns with Unilever’s Vitality mission of helping people feel good, look good and get more out of life, and will help consumers quickly identify foods and beverages that fit within their daily calorie needs simply by looking for the ‘check’ on the front of product packages.”
Among the Unilever brands that will feature the Smart Choices Program symbol are Ragu, Bertolli, Hellmann’s, Country Crock, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, Promise, Skippy, Lipton, Wish-Bone, Breyers, Slim-Fast, Knorr, Brummel & Brown, Imperial and Popsicle.
To promote the voluntary program, the company is launching an integrated, cross-platform consumer education campaign, “Become Label Conscious,” which encompasses traditional trade, print and online advertising; consumer promotions and free-standing-inserts (FSIs) in local news publications; videos starring nutrition, health and wellness expert Joy Bauer; and an educational collaboration with WebMD at www.webmd.com.
“[W]e think the symbol is the easiest way for consumers to understand more about the nutrition of the food they buy,” notes Mark Andon, VP of nutrition at Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods, which will carry the Smart Choices logo on almost 200 of its products, including Healthy Choice meals, Orville Redenbacher’s SmartPop! microwave popcorn and Egg Beaters liquid eggs. “There’s a significant amount of research, including our own, that shows the strong linkage between good nutrition and healthful, satisfying lives. But it’s not always easy to identify smarter food and beverage choices. The Smart Choices Program symbol can help; its stringent standards, plus the fact that it eliminates the need for multiple, often confusing symbols across the food industry, are unprecedented.”
Susan Crockett, VP of the General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, was a member of the Smart Choices group that developed the new labeling. “We believe this will help make it easier for consumers to compare calories and make healthy food choices through front-of-packaging information,” she observes.
Products manufactured by General Mills that qualify for the Smart Choices green check mark include Yoplait Light yogurts, Green Giant frozen vegetables, most Progresso lower-sodium soups and nearly all Big G cereals, including all kid cereals. The Minneapolis-based company says it plans to phase in the use of the new labeling to coincide with other packaging changes.
To display the Smart Choices symbol, a food or beverage can’t exceed standards for specific “nutrients to limit” and, for most categories, must also provide positive attributes such as “nutrients to encourage” or “food groups to encourage.” Specific qualifying criteria were developed for each of the 19 product categories.
Under the program, nutrients to limit are total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and added sugars and sodium; nutrients to encourage are calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E; and food groups to encourage are fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low fat or fat-free milk products.
Smart Choices’ nutrition guidelines are flexible and adaptable, allowing for revisions in accordance new public policy, updated dietary guidelines and emerging consensus science. The nutritional criteria, which will be adjusted to reflect the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, should recommendations change, are fully transparent and publicly available to consumers.
The reaction to the rollout from the representative of another nutrition program was cordial, if somewhat competitive. “We share the same goal as the Smart Choices system: to lead consumers to better foods,” said Rob Keane, spokesman for Braintree, Mass.-based NuVal, LLC, which offers a nutritional scoring system based on the scientifically developed Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI™) algorithm. “We’re biased, of course, but we believe NuVal has a more comprehensive system that in the end does a better job toward helping consumers eat better -- but any system trying to improve the American diet should be commended.”
In an even more harmonious spirit, Keane added: “[W]e believe that our systems are not incompatible with each other -- NuVal can be offered to consumers alongside Smart Choices. Given our extensive database and scoring method, we could actually be used as a behind-the-scenes engine for systems like Smart Choices.”
“We think that any program that helps make it easier for customers to eat healthfully is a good thing,” diplomatically noted Haley Meyer, spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Supervalu, which earlier this year rolled out its “nutritionIQ” system, which was developed in collaboration with an independent panel of dietitians from http://www.joslin.org and is based on FDA nutrient content claims.
One program spokesman sounded a note of caution, however. “As experts with nearly three years of marketplace experience in the nutrition space, we share a common vision [with Smart Choices] of creating a universal nutrition-labeling program that will reduce consumer confusion and guide Americans to making healthier food choices,” said John Eldredge, director of brand & business development at Scarborough, Maine-based Guiding Stars Licensing Co., the licensing arm of the pioneering initiative originally introduced at Hannaford Supermarkets in September 2006 and since rolled out at fellow Delhaize banners Food Lion and Sweetbay Supermarket, as well as by a school district and university in Maine. “With the Smart Choices Program, it’s not clear at this time that every major food manufacturer, not to mention smaller regional food manufacturers, will enlist in the program. Consequently, one of the potential risks is that the program will not truly be universally applied throughout the supermarket and will not achieve the goal of reducing consumer confusion.”
Eldredge added that in contrast to Smart Choices, “Guiding Stars is an objective nutrition navigation program not influenced by food manufacturers that highlights foods that provide the most nutrition for the calories throughout the entire store -- including packaged, fresh and prepared foods.”
Smart Choices was originally coordinated by The Keystone Center, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization specializing in coalition-based public health solutions. Currently, the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), a professional research society dedicated to nutrition science, and NSF International, a not-for-profit public health organization that certifies products and writes standards for food, water and consumer goods, jointly administer Smart Choices and evaluate products to ensure they meet the nutrition criteria before receiving the check mark symbol.