A New York Times article "For Your Health, Froot Loops" uncovers the absurdist logic of a new food-labeling campaign called the "Smart Choices Program." The label is a "front-of-package" designation whereby consumers can see if their food purchases meet the criteria set forth by the program for healthy eating. The title of the article is based on the fact that Kellogg's Froot Loops meets those criteria. Other smart choices include Fudgsicles, Lunchables and Mayonnaise.
The purpose of the campaign is, according to the Smart Choices president Eileen Kennedy, to designate a "food item [that] is a 'better for you' product, as opposed to having an x on it saying 'Don't eat this.'" With Froot Loops' first ingredient being sugar--a substance that comprises 44% of its caloric composition--and other fun stuff like partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and 4 different types of food coloring, the question to Dr. Kennedy is: better than what? Dr. Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said Froot Loops are superior to doughnuts. This may be true, but it's disheartening to think that being the better choice amongst horrendous choices somehow equals a smart choice (unless "smart choice" is just a figure of speech).
Even more disheartening is the chorus of special interests that decide what smart choices are and are not. Since the program costs $100K to opt into, the main participants in the Smart Choices Program are a who's who of behemoth industrial food purveyors: Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, Unilever, General Mills, PepsiCo and Tyson Foods. NYU Nutrition expert Marion Nestle speculates about this suspicious relationship in her blog:
No wonder the American Society of Nutrition [a non-profit endorsing the program] and everyone else involved in the program want to set nutrition standards so loosely that they can encompass as many products as possible. The more products that qualify for the Smart Choices logo, the more money the program gets. I'd call that a clear conflict of interest.
The idea that enough money and spin can replace common sense--whether it's a product's healthfulness or environmental merits--reminds me of a post I wrote about a possible connection between mercury and high fructose corn syrup. One of the comments I received was from a "registered dietitian." She said how HFCS got a bad rap and was perfectly suitable in moderation. Upon further inspection, this dietitian was a consultant for clients such as Coca Cola, Steak N'Shake and the National Pork Board--hardly bastions for healthy eating.
Agents like this dietitian and the Smart Choice Program that claim authority on nutritional matters--agents beholden to large food manufactures and their financial interests--pervert common sense and create debates where there should be none. Whether Froot Loops and Mayonnaise should be part of your diet is a personal choice. But calling these packaged, highly processed, fat and sugar-laden, foods a "smart choice" is just absurd.
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