Are Fruit Loops Healthy?

Most shoppers know cabbage and carrots are smart food choices.

But it might surprise you that Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Ritz Bits Peanut Butter Chocolatey Blast crackers and Kid Cuisine Magical Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza meals are billed as "Smart Choices" too under a new food-rating program.

A logo adopted by food company giants is showing up on groceries in major supermarkets: a green "Smart Choice" check mark, meant to replace the blizzard of health labels with which companies clutter their food packages: "Sensible Solution, "Smart Spot," more.

Sponsors say the icon will help an overweight and overwhelmed public make better food choices in a way that reflects how people really shop.

Critics say Smart Choices won't dispel confusion because its nutrition standards are far too lenient. They see it as an attempt by food companies to bill less-than-stellar processed foods as nutritious. And they are especially steamed by the breakfast cereal category because so many sugary cereals got a stamp of approval.

"Froot Loops? Froot Loops! I rest my case," said Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University. "No nutritionist I know would recommend Froot Loops for breakfast."

A congresswoman has asked the Food and Drug Administration to investigate whether products have been "misbranded."

The American Dietetic Association, American Diabetes Association and Tufts University's school of nutrition, each of which has members on the Smart Choices board, have asked Smart Choices to remove the institutions' names from a webpage listing board members. Although these individuals are involved in the program, the organizations are not, said spokespeople for each.

Smart Choices originated in meetings among food manufacturers, dietitians, academics and others called by the Keystone Center, a nonprofit group focused on public health based in Keystone, Colo. FDA officials sat in on discussions.

The program sets clear, public qualification criteria for foods in 19 categories, including cheeses and cheese substitutes; snack foods and sweets; breakfast cereals; fats, oils and spreads; meals and main courses. Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables without additives automatically qualify.

Within each category, the logo is meant to indicate products "better for you" based on nutrients to encourage (such as calcium, fiber and some vitamins and minerals); substances to limit (including fats, sugars and sodium); and food groups to encourage (fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or nonfat dairy).

Ten companies -- including Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, Kellogg Co., Sun-Maid Growers of California and PepsiCo -- are taking part so far, and more than 2,000 products have received a Smart Choices logo, program administrators say. They expect that to double within months.

There is a sliding scale for participation: Companies that sell as much as $75 million a year in Smart Choices products, for example, pay a $2,500 annual fee. The fee per product is negligible, a Smart Choices official said.

Nutritionists who dislike the program say it's inappropriate that their professional group, the American Society for Nutrition, is involved. Smart Choices is administered by the ASN in partnership with a nonprofit group and has four industry representatives on its nine-member board of directors.

"The public deserves sound nutrition advice, and this needs to be independent of industry," said registered dietitian Leslie Mikkelsen, managing director of the Prevention Institute in Oakland, Calif.

Critics also object to the criteria for inclusion, which permitted products such as Cocoa Krispies, Lunchables Chicken Dunks, Wheat Thins and Fruit Roll-Ups Crazy Pix to qualify for icons along with brown rice, turkey breast and vegetables.

But the most contentious issue -- the stickiest for the committee, according to some people who participated in discussions -- is the amount of added sugar permitted in breakfast cereals.

The panel, after vigorous debate, allowed a Smart Choices cereal to contain as many as 12 grams -- 48 calories -- of added sugar per serving. That could be 40 percent or more of the serving's total calories.

"Most of the most heavily advertised breakfast cereals - [such as] Lucky Charms -- all qualify," said Jackie Thompson of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, who was not among the group planning the system. "If they all qualify, it doesn't offer the consumer much information. They're 'smart,' but smarter than what?"

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he resigned from the committee charged with designing Smart Choices about a year ago over the sugar allowance, among other things.

"The cereal industry put down its foot and said, 'It has to be 12 grams or we're not going to participate,' " Jacobson said.

But Michael Hughes, vice president for science and public policy at Keystone Center and a member of the Smart Choices board, said none of the critics has presented scientific evidence that the program's criteria are out of line with a good, nutritious diet.

The committee, Hughes said, used the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reports from the National Academy of Sciences and other research to come up with the program, which can evolve as the science changes, he said.

The program also -- appropriately, he feels -- considered consumers' desires for taste, nutrition and convenience. Sure, it might be ideal to grow arugula, harvest it in the evening and make a big salad for dinner, but, "That's not a choice everyone will make," he said.

The cereal objections are also unfair, said Joanne Lupton, a member of the Smart Choices guidelines committee and a professor at Texas A&M University. Cereal provides an array of nutrients and is a good breakfast, she said, especially if the alternative is a sweet roll.

Celeste Clark, a senior vice president at Kellogg, put it another way: Foods that don't taste good don't get eaten. Twelve grams of added sugar "seemed to be realistic and achievable," she said.

In the end, just about all of Kellogg's cereals made the grade, in part because some got reformulated, which is an added benefit of the program, Clark said. Froot Loops, for example, has 3 fewer grams of sugar than it did before Smart Choices, and 2 grams more fiber.

Officials from the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture had written to Smart Choices in August saying the agencies "would be concerned" if labeling systems "were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims ... or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

That's exactly what the most outspoken critics fear will be the result.

This," said Nestle of New York University, "is about marketing, not about health."