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Seals of Approval on Food Packages

September 6, 2009

I just read through an interesting article in the New York Times business section about the new “Smart Choices” food labeling campaign that allows food products that line grocery shelves to bear a green check mark to indicate they are so-called “smarter choices” among the sea of food products available in grocery stores today. Currently, ten prominent food companies including Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, and General Mills have thus far signed on for the program, paying a fee based on annual sales of products that have earned the seal (and have therefore met criteria set by the “Smart Choices” program).

As William Neuman, the author of this article points out, the problem many see with using this “Smart Choice” seal of approval is that some foods that we don’t normally think of as healthy foods because they contain a lot of sugar, skimp on fiber, or have too much fat and/or calories–Fruit Loops, or full-fat mayonnaise included–slip through the cracks, if you will. Many who are opposed to using these green check marks to green light certain foods believe consumers will be led to choose these foods when in fact there are reasons (again, too much sugar, too little fiber, too much fat, too many calories) these foods should not be considered ideal choices when moving towards a more healthful diet.

Reading this article reminded me of one of my first (and definitely the most memorable) tv appearances I did in the summer of 1998. 9 months pregnant, I had taped my first segment for Fox 5 in NYC about how the American Heart Association seal of approval was showing up on things like sugary, low fiber cereals. In the segment, I recall saying that it was ironic that the AHA seal, which meant a food was “heart healthy” because it contained only so much saturated fat and cholesterol, would appear on sugary cereals since such foods were naturally low or devoid of saturated fat and cholesterol. I went on to say that just because foods bear the seal doesn’t mean they’re healthy–they could still contain too much sugar, be low in fiber, and not be the most healthful selection. (Incidentally, the segment aired Monday, July 13th, 1998, between 10:50 and 11 pm– I know this well because my husband and I, my ob/gyn, and a few nurses watched it together as my son Spencer was born).

Even before I became an American Dietetic Association spokesperson 5 years ago, I had always believed that any and all foods can be part of an otherwise healthful, sensible, and balanced diet. Some foods are naturally healthier than others, and of course many of us know that emphasizing fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and grains (especially whole grains) form the foundation of a heart-healthy diet. My concern about the Smart Choices program, and frankly, of any seals of approval on food packages is that they can further confuse consumers. Just getting through the Nutrition Facts Panel and ingredients lists takes effort, and as a registered dietitian I feel that if people can just pay more attention and learn to read through those, they are way ahead of the game in terms of making more informed, educated food and beverage selections when they shop for themselves and their families. I’m not saying these check mark programs can’t be helpful, but I think the take home message for consumers should always be to choose more of what you know is healthy (eg plant foods made without added fats or sugar), and when shopping for packaged, processed foods, look for those with less fat, sugar, sodium, and calories. Look to registered dietitians to help you create and individualize a personalized, healthy eating plan based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (and illustrated by MyPyramid). Always think more about what you need more of in your diet (eg vegetables), try to fill up on those foods, and choose smaller portions of nutritious but more caloric foods such as lean meats, fish, low fat dairy foods, nuts/seeds, and added fats such as oils. Finally, pick your poison. If you love sugar, have just one or two cookies, or a piece of chocolate, or  some ice cream. Have small portions of the indulgence items and call it a day.


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