Victory: Change.org Members Force Health Organizations to Back Away from Food Labeling Ploy
This week thousands of Change.org members took on the food industry's new marketing scheme to persuade customers to buy more highly processed foods - and won a major victory.
The new marketing program, called "Smart Choices," is a front-of-the-package nutrition-labeling program designed in theory to help shoppers make smarter food choices.
But as the New York Times exposed last week, the selections are anything but healthy. One of the selections is Froot Loops, which was chosen, according to one board member, because "it's better for you than donuts." (No, we're not kidding. We couldn't make this up.)
Despite the program's dubious standards, it maintained the appearance of legitimacy because researchers associated with three reputable organizations - American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University - were on its board.
In response, thousands of Change.org members sent letters to the presidents of these three major research institutions urging them to remove their name from the program.
The result? All three organizations responded to the pressure this week by publicly distancing themselves from the food labeling scheme and officially asking Smart Choices to remove their name from its website and marketing materials - thereby publicly embarrassing and discrediting the program.
Mark this as a victory for consumer advocacy on the web. If anyone still questioned whether the Smart Choices program had any legitimacy, they now have their answer. And if food companies had any question about whether they'd be able to introduce a new marketing program to sell more unhealthy foods without repercussion, they now know there are thousands of consumers who will be watching.
For Your Health, Froot Loops
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
Published: September 4, 2009
A new food-labeling campaign called Smart Choices, backed by most of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, is “designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices.”
The green checkmark label that is starting to show up on store shelves will appear on hundreds of packages, including — to the surprise of many nutritionists — sugar-laden cereals like Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops.
“These are horrible choices,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health.
He said the criteria used by the Smart Choices Program were seriously flawed, allowing less healthy products, like sweet cereals and heavily salted packaged meals, to win its seal of approval. “It’s a blatant failure of this system and it makes it, I’m afraid, not credible,” Mr. Willett said.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have also weighed in, sending the program’s managers a letter on Aug. 19 saying they intended to monitor its effect on the food choices of consumers.
The letter said the agencies would be concerned if the Smart Choices label “had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
The government is interested in improving nutrition labeling on packages in part because of the nation’s obesity epidemic, which experts say is tied to a diet heavy in processed foods loaded with calories, fats and sugar.
The prominently displayed label debuts as many in the food industry and government are debating how to provide information on the front of packages that includes important elements from the familiar nutrition facts box that usually appears on the back of products.
Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said the program’s criteria were based on government dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards.
She said the program was also influenced by research into consumer behavior. That research showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them.
“The checkmark means the food item is a ‘better for you’ product, as opposed to having an x on it saying ‘Don’t eat this,’ ” Dr. Kennedy said. “Consumers are smart enough to deduce that if it doesn’t have the checkmark, by implication it’s not a ‘better for you’ product. They want to have a choice. They don’t want to be told ‘You must do this.’ ”
Dr. Kennedy, who is not paid for her work on the program, defended the products endorsed by the program, including sweet cereals. She said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.
“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”
Froot Loops qualifies for the label because it meets standards set by the Smart Choices Program for fiber and Vitamins A and C, and because it does not exceed limits on fat, sodium and sugar. It contains the maximum amount of sugar allowed under the program for cereals, 12 grams per serving, which in the case of Froot Loops is 41 percent of the product, measured by weight. That is more sugar than in many popular brands of cookies.
“Froot Loops is an excellent source of many essential vitamins and minerals and it is also a good source of fiber with only 12 grams of sugar,” said Celeste A. Clark, senior vice president of global nutrition for Kellogg’s, which makes Froot Loops. “You cannot judge the nutritional merits of a food product based on one ingredient.”
Dr. Clark, who is a member of the Smart Choices board, said that the program’s standard for sugar in cereals was consistent with federal dietary guidelines that say that “small amounts of sugar” added to nutrient-dense foods like breakfast cereals can make them taste better. That, in theory, will encourage people to eat more of them, which would increase the nutrients in their diet.
Ten companies have signed up for the Smart Choices program so far, including Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo and Tyson Foods. Companies that participate pay up to $100,000 a year to the program, with the fee based on total sales of its products that bear the seal.
The Smart Choices checkmark is meant to take the place of similar nutritional labels that individual manufacturers began plastering on their packages several years ago, like PepsiCo’s Smart Choices Made Easy and Sensible Solution from Kraft.
In joining Smart Choices, the companies agreed to discontinue their own labeling systems, Ms. Kennedy said.
Michael R. Taylor, a senior F.D.A. adviser, said the agency was concerned that sugar-laden cereals and high-fat foods would bear a label that tells consumers they were nutritionally superior.
“What we don’t want to do is have front-of-package information that in any way is based on cherry-picking the good and not disclosing adequately the components of a product that may be less good,” Mr. Taylor said.
He said the agency would consider the possibility of creating a standardized nutrition label for the front of packages.
“We’re taking a hard look at these programs and we want to independently look at what would be the sound criteria and the best way to present this information,” Mr. Taylor said.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, was part of a panel that helped devise the Smart Choices nutritional criteria, until he quit last September. He said the panel was dominated by members of the food industry, which skewed its decisions.
“It was paid for by industry and when industry put down its foot and said this is what we’re doing, that was it, end of story,” he said. Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Clark, who were both on the panel, said industry members had not controlled the results.
Mr. Jacobson objected to some of the panel’s nutritional decisions. The criteria allow foods to carry the Smart Choices seal if they contain added nutrients, which he said could mask shortcomings in the food.
Despite federal guidelines favoring whole grains, the criteria allow breads made with no whole grains to get the seal if they have added nutrients.
“You could start out with some sawdust, add calcium or Vitamin A and meet the criteria,” Mr. Jacobson said.
Nutritionists questioned other foods given the Smart Choices label. The program gives the seal to both regular and light mayonnaise, which could lead consumers to think they are both equally healthy. It also allows frozen meals and packaged sandwiches to have up to 600 milligrams of sodium, a quarter of the recommended daily maximum intake.
“The object of this is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.