Until a few days ago, the food industry was moving ahead with its program to label products such as Lucky Charms cereal and Ritz Bits Peanut Butter Chocolatey Blast crackers as nutritionally “Smart Choices.” But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made threatening noises, and the industry has backed off for now. That indeed was a smart choice.
The idea held promise: Food company representatives joining with dietitians and academics to develop a clear set of criteria for foods that could be considered nutritious options. Consumers overwhelmed by nutrition information could tell at a glance which foods were better for them by the eye-catching green Smart Choices label on the front of the package. But too many compromises were made on processed foods laden with sugar and artificial ingredients, to the point where the label was at risk of being meaningless. Plenty of healthy foods were approved too, but consumers don’t need a label to tell them that broccoli and brown rice are nutritious. In the end, the American Dietetic Assn. and Tufts University, which had members on the Smart Choices panel, asked that the names of their institutions be removed from its website. At least one member of the panel quit.
It’s true, as one member said, that Froot Loops are a better choice for a child’s daily breakfast than doughnuts, but that’s hardly a ringing nutritional endorsement. “Better than really bad” does not constitute a smart choice.
The labeling project was already underway when the FDA stepped in last week with some strong reservations. “There are products that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50% sugar,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters. In a widely circulated letter, she said the FDA would take action against any labels that misled consumers, and that her agency would propose regulations laying out criteria for those labels. Four days later, food companies were backing away from Smart Choices.
This is more than a wise move by the food industry. It’s an encouraging sign that after years of weakened consumer advocacy under the George W. Bush administration, the FDA is reclaiming its role as public protector.