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Eating Healthy is More than Looking for Checkmarks

Posted by bmagnus On October - 21 - 2009

The FDA has sent a “Guidance for Industry” letter warning the food industry that “both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package [‘FOP’] and shelf-labeling systems [should] be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading.” It’s a follow up to an August letter to the General Manager of the “Smart Choices” program warning that “FDA and FSIS would be concerned if any FOP labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.” In other words: the FDA has noticed that some cereals with the Smart Choice logo are almost 50% sugar, and if they don’t clean up their act the FDA will declare some regulations to do it for them.

The reason the FDA is concerned is that such Front Of Package (“FOP”) designations carry a lot of weight, and many consumers are not actually bothering to look at the back of the package for the whole nutritional story. Nutrition experts are outraged that a consumers are being led to believe that foods like Fruit Loops or bagels pre-stuffed with cream cheese and strawberry puree (with plenty of red dye) are somehow a “smart” choice. As one columnist pointed out:

“Smart” by the way, is not the same as “Healthy.”

For the curious, here are the nutrition criteria for the Smart Choices program. A few things that popped out at me are that breakfast cereals are allowed to have twice the sugar of desserts, and that cereal products don’t have any criteria on how much fat they are allowed to contain. Chewing gum is not allowed to contain any fat for a Smart Choices label. One good thing about Smart Choices is that calories per serving and servings per container are on the front of the box.

Like it or not, healthy eating begins in the grocery store. It’s not enough to rely on the big label on the front of the box proclaiming “No Cholesterol!” “Low in Sodium!” or even “Smart Choices.” Sadly, it remains necessary to read the back panel and decide for yourself whether any given food fits into your definition of healthy eating.

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