The voluntary system, unveiled during this week's American Dietetic Association convention, was developed by a Food and Nutrition Roundtable led by The Keystone Center, a non-profit specializing in creating consensus solutions to public health problems. The food roundtable includes scientists, academics, health organizations, food and beverage manufacturers and retailers.
Foods that qualify for the program may feature the Smart Choices symbol, designed to help consumers readily identify more nutritious choices within specific product categories. The label also provides calories per serving and servings per container to help people stay within their daily calorie needs.
Although all of the details are not yet finalized, ConAgra on Monday released a statement saying that it will participate. Keystone said that "likely implementers" include Unilever, Kraft, General Mills, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg Company and Wal-Mart. Companies that have joined the roundtable recently, including Nestle, are in the process of reviewing the program elements and evaluating possible implementation of the program, Keystone reported.
Specific qualifying criteria were developed for 18 different product categories, including beverages, cereals, meats, dairy and snacks.
To qualify for the symbol, which will begin appearing on front labels in mid-2009, products cannot exceed standards for specific "nutrients to limit": total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars and sodium.
Also, for most categories, they must provide positive attributes, termed "nutrients to encourage" or "food groups to encourage." Encouraged nutrients include calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E. Encouraged food groups include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
Eileen T. Kennedy--dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and a roundtable participant--said the program "shows real promise in assisting people in making positive dietary changes to help enhance public health." She also called reaching consensus among the diverse group of influential stakeholders "a tremendous accomplishment."
Michael F. Jacobsen, executive director of nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, participated in the roundtable for more than a year, but resigned in early October, citing differences with the group's ultimate decisions.
In a letter to Brad Sperber, senior associate and director of the health and social policy practice for Keystone, Jacobsen stated that his "paramount" concern is that Smart Choices' "better for you" approach was not tested against other approaches to determine which would best encourage shoppers to choose the most healthful foods. Other approaches include Hannaford Bros./Food Lion's "Guiding Stars" (0, 1, 2, or 3 stars on almost all foods); Yale/Topco's NuVal ratings of 0 to 100 for almost all foods; and red, yellow and green "traffic lights" signifying levels of saturated fat, sodium and other nutrients, as recommended by the British government on the basis of comparative testing.
"Any of those (or other) systems--some of which rate every food, not just the healthier ones--might have a much greater effect on consumers' food-buying choices than the Smart Choices Program," Jacobsen maintained.
"Second, the process has always had an inherent problem in that its main decisions are determined largely by the industry members, thereby excluding some options (such as a symbol connoting high levels of sodium, saturated fat, or sugar) from serious consideration," Jacobsen wrote. "A disinterested funder and committee of experts free of conflicts of interest likely would have rated the healthfulness of foods differently from the 'better for you' Smart Choices Program adopted by the roundtable."
Finally, Jacobsen disagreed with some of the criteria used to determine which foods qualify for the symbol. For instance, he said, fortification allows foods of "questionable or negligible nutritional value" to qualify, including sugary cereals, white bread and pastas made with white flour.
Other of his objections: Grain products are not required to be at least 50% whole grain; food servings may contain up to 12 grams of added sugars (allowing many cereals with 40% or higher sugar content to quality for the symbol); functional fibers that may not provide the same benefits as naturally occurring fiber are being treated equally for qualification purposes; and foods that contain caffeine, food dyes, the preservative BHA, artificial sweeteners and other additives that "are suspected of causing or have been shown to cause adverse reproductive, behavioral, or gastrointestinal effects or cancer" can qualify for the symbol.
"I sincerely hope that the Smart Choices symbol will help many consumers choose healthier products," Jacobsen concluded. "But when a more effective system is identified, I hope that Congress will consider requiring its use on all packaged foods and, if feasible, on the menus of chain restaurants."