September 09, 2009

"Smart Choices" at the Supermarket?

Photo: Trevor D.

So did you see the article in the New York Times about the new "Smart Choices" food labeling campaign?

Yes, the handy labels are showing up in grocery stores now, part of a corporate conspiracy educational campaign by the country’s major food manufacturers to let you know which are the best and healthiest food options for your family. If it's got the little "Smart Choice" label, you are supposed to be able to relax and buy it without guilt, because it's good for you!

Due to the strict standards the food industry has adopted, obviously not every product makes the list. Only nutritional power-houses, like Chocolate Teddy Grahams, Cocoa Krispies, and Fudgsicles get the coveted "Smart Choice" seal of approval.

Seriously--they are all "Smart Choices."

Oh, but of course you can't live on chocolate alone. Remember the advice to eat lots of different colored foods for optimal nutrition? Good thing Froot Loops are an approved Smart Choice too!

Just look at all that Nutrition!
Photo: dresdnhope

Now I have to admit that on first hearing about this, I had a screaming, cursing, spitting, hair-pulling fit brief moment of concern over the wisdom of this new labeling scheme.

A few minor quibbles and questions occurred to me, like:

  • Breakfast foods containing 41% sugar by weight are good for us? Really?

  • Adding vitamin supplements to nutritionally bankrupt processed junk foods makes them healthy "smart choices," even though research tells us supplements don't work as well as naturally occurring nutrients, and in some cases can even be dangerous?

  • Breads that contain no whole grains whatsoever can be "smart choices" if they add some calcium and vitamins?

But after swallowing a handful of valium some moments of calm reflection, I realized I was being unnecessarily pessimistic about this new labeling campaign. I simply had to adjust my mindset.

Here's how I learned to stop worrying and love the new Smart Choices!

1. They're a Time-Saver. These "smart choice" labels were designed with the busy consumer in mind. Why spend precious time reading ingredient lists to see what you're eating when you could just let the people selling it tell you it's good for you?

Now many of us know the reason you do have to read the ingredients: because descriptive claims like "smart" and "healthy" are often lies. Even numbers, like "0 grams of transfat!" aren't always true.

But every now and then, even careful consumers can get hornswoggled by nutritional claims on the front of the box. A product says "100% whole grain" and we carelessly assume that this is true, because why the hell else would they be allowed to say that?

Well, with the majority of food manufacturers getting together to adopt this new program, and products like Froot Loops proudly bearing the "Smart Choices" label, we can no longer delude ourselves that food manufacturers are anything other than big fat liars.

From now on, the message is clear: DO NOT TRUST ANYTHING THAT BIG FOOD COMPANIES SAY! This is depressing, but it's much simpler than trying to sort out individual health claims on all those bags and boxes.

So your options are: either try to eat whole foods; seek out niche companies that specialize in healthy (often expensive) convenience foods; or go straight to the ingredients list of any major brand and ignore anything they say on the front of the package.

2. The Coming Demographic Crisis: Solved! You know all those dire predictions about how there are so many baby boomers who will be hitting retirement soon, and so few people who are going to be paying into Social Security? Ever wonder how a dwindling number of young working people can support all those elderly retirees?

Well, here's the solution: let's just kill off those boomers a little earlier! How about we increase the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and other slow-but-sure killers by convincing the U.S. population that junky processed foods are really actually health foods? Eat up, America, the Social Security administration thanks you!

3. A whole new growth industry! In these challenging times, we desperately need new ideas that will get consumers spending money again so we can turn the economy around. And I think this "Smart Choices" labeling has promise!

Just as the processed food industry is fighting back against those pesky claims that they're "bad" for us by adding vitamins and calling them "smart choices," I think similar health campaigns could help a lot of industries. Just use your imagination:

  • Gun manufacturers can include anti-bacterial wipes and bandages with all semi-automatic weapons, clearing making these a "Smart Choice" for conflict resolution.

  • Cigarette makers can include fold-out sudoku and crossword puzzles inside to build brain power, making them a "Smart Choice" in the addictive-and-fatal-but-legal drug market.

  • Street corner prostitutes who market to johns in cars can distribute "wear your seatbelt" brochures to be the "Smart Choice" in the sexual entertainment market.

  • And neighborhood loan sharks can hand out gambler's anonymous literature right after beating clients to a pulp for overdue gambling debts, making them the "Smart Choice" in the short-term unsecured loan industry.

See, it's all in how you look at things!

So do you think I'm being too hard on our nation's processed food manufacturers (not to mention stupid, because they sometimes give us Free Stuff?) What do you think of the "Smart Choice" program?


  1. Hmmmm...this has oxymoron written all over it. I bet they don't put any 'smart' choice stickers on bananas or carrots....

  2. This is absolutely tear your hear out frustrating.

    I agree with you.

    It reminds me of the registered dietitians and nutritionists who recommend fortified products instead of whole, real foods for folic acid for women who might become pregnant. Because, of course, it is much better to get this micronutrient from bread that has been fortified than from leafy greens where it is naturally occurring.

    If it didn't grow out of the ground looking like that, or eat something that did grow out of the ground, then it is processed and needs to play a small role in your diet, not be the lead.

    Sorry, didn't mean to usurp your rant, which is phenominal.

  3. Isn't the very fact that we call them "food manufacturers" cause for concern? Food is grown. Cars are manufactured.

    The only "smart choices" in the supermarket are the things that don't have a package on which to affix a "smart choice" label.

  4. I am with you on this!!! I am an avid label reader! Drives my hubby crazy since it takes me so long to shop if I want to buy something I am not familiar with but too bad for him! :-) Pretty scary that they label some of this crap Smart Choices! And of course, people can't think for themselves so just take their word. Craziness when it comes to our food supply & health! Like you too, I try to eat as much of the "real stuff" as possible.

    Love the post!

  5. I know it's a serious point you are making, but I still found myself rolling around on the floor laughing at the way you phrase it.

    In particular, your idea of it being a solution to the Coming Demographic Crisis made me howl.

    Here in the UK we are plagued by an equally silly idea, colour coded labelling for food called the 'traffic light' scheme. As one of your comments suggests, I've never seen one on a banana!

  6. This reminds me of the "Health Check" symbol on many Canadian processed foods. It's allegedly distributed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation to foods that they deem "healthy".

    Boy was I dissillusioned when I learned that companies BUY this symbol to place on their products and that the only criteria the H&S foundation seems to want from the big food producers is a lower sodium content then the products used to have.

    That's right! It doesn't matter how many calories something has, or how many grams of fat something contains! It all hinges on levels of sodium - that's what makes EVERYTHING healthy.


  7. Nutritionally bankrupt (love that term!) foods are good for you.
    Lousy food is smart.
    Bad is good.
    And somewhere a clock struck '13.'

  8. The "Smart Choices" program sounds like a gimmick. Obviously processed food isn't healthier than actual real unprocessed food.

    It's possible we're just be pessimistic, and the food manufacturers have our best interests at heart. But if that were the case, then educating the general population would go further than simply labeling foods as "Smart Choices."

  9. Great post!

    Healthy, quality food in the United States is not that expensive (relatively, that is, compared to other countries); it's the manufactured junk food that is so cheap.

  10. The rest of the country just isn't as enlightened as Cranky Fitness readers! :-P Maybe the "smart choice" labels are for those who eat total garbage. Now they can chose slightly better garbage.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if we're doomed as a species. But naturally-occurring foods don't make as much money for the shareholders as Froot Loops, so there you go.

  12. The demographic problem will be solved anyway. Baby Boomers are dying earlier than other generations... and high on the list of causes of death are accident, drug overdose, and alcohol related deaths.

    Seems the old hippies are still hippies at heart, and these new food labels are just an excuse for some hot new munchies.

    There are only two labels I read on grocery items: The ingredient list and the nutrition label. While the food companies can't actually LIE they can misrepresent, and these new labels are a prime example of that. The problem is that there is no sufficient agreed upon definition of "healthy food"

  13. I am a label reader at the supermarket. Of course the best foods do not come with labels.

  14. Good lord. This is completely in keeping with research I've been reading that outlines the degree to which the FDA, USDA and every other alphabet soup government agency is sleeping with the food industry.

    Your rant is completely on target!!!

    Here are my Smart Choice recommendations:

    1. If it has a label AT ALL, chances are it isn't that great for you!

    2. If you rely on the government to be your nutrition expert you will experience the same remarkable care you currently receive at the DMV.

  15. But think what a chuckle we all get out of it! Froot loops! Right! I can see ammunition for a new generation of child attorneys. Thanks, I needed the giggle.

  16. well, I don't think these "smart choices" labels are going to make healthy eaters eat worse since healthy eaters already know the tenets of healthy eating and will probably never be fooled into eating frootloops.

    So I doubt we're really changing any eating habits at all. Unhealthy eaters will continue eating unhealthy, but instead will feel good about it.

    Not sure that's a good thing, but at least it's not really a loss.

  17. Sounds like "double speak" right out of Orwell's "1984".

  18. This does not surprise me at all. Don't even get me started on the FDA.

    I tend to stick to the Hannafords starring, they have stricter guidelines than our government.

  19. Are you kidding me? Aw geez. These "food companies" have way too much power. Fruit loops should never been considered a smart choice for anything but the trash can.

    Frustrating. Anger-provoking.

    Vee at

  20. Ok, that was hilarious!

    And...Hey! Whaddaya mean Froot Loops aren't good for me?


  21. Just as I was about to have my 8th serving of froot for the day, you have to go ahead and spoil it. I suppose they're hoping we all lapse into too much of a sugar coma to notice, those wascally wabbits.

    Any food that takes on the color of freshly harvested nuclear waste should probably be avoided. I'm with you - if there's profit to be had it's best to rely on my own judgment - as flawed as it may be.

  22. Hilarious. And maddening. And so typical for our time. (not going on rant myself). Which is why my shopping is mainly on the outside of the store.

    One problem with your demographic solution, though. I think Boomers were the last generation to actually know how to cook. We might survive longer than those youngun's "supporting" us because they believe there is no option except to buy all those "smart choices".

  23. Read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and you will see just how much of a farce this is!! Nutritional products do NOT equate with healthy.

    If you cannot pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn't be putting it in your mouth.

  24. Funded by the 10 food processors that get the labels. I think I'll go back to smoking cigarettes, it's much healthier than smoking crack.

    Corporate whitewashing at its finest. I'm glad I don't buy any of these foods, and rarely eat them.

  25. My favorite is the gigantic bag of Twizzlers with "A FAT FREE FOOD! :D :D :D" emblazoned across the front of the bag.


  26. Back away from my Fudgsicles lady. When you're out to here preggo, those *are* a Smart Choice compared to the gallon of Ben and Jerry's. :)

    But yeah, I agree with you. I'm a label reader. And if it has some "smart" or "healthy" or "better for you" sticker? I'm immediately suspicious.

  27. I've been following Marion Nestle's commentary on this and she is, to say the least, acerbic.

    I just stick to whole foods!

    You are so funny! I love coming here!

  28. AS ALWAYS, you rock!!!!!

    Who says special interest groups are ruining the country?
    Oh wait, I DO!!!!
    Look, people, if you wanna eat yout cocoa puffs, go ahead! Just be honest and stop telling yourself it's health food! It's OK to eat treats, but there's a reason they're called TREATS.
    Remember when all the sugary cereals had the tagline "part of this nutritious breakfast," and then they'd show a bowl of said cereal placed next to some whole-wheat toast and fruit? Yeah. The toast and fruit were the nutritious part, while the (small serving of) cereal was the reward.
    Personally I'm not a fan of the heavily processed stuff. bit I do think that, in small amounts, it's OK. Not ideal, but OK. But labeling it as healthy? so NOT OK!!!!!

  29. I read labels simply because of my allergies. Some could well be a "Smart Choice", but if it is going to trigger my asthma, I avoid it. Oh and if I can't pronounce it...

    Then of course there is the warning on the bags of mixed nuts "Caution: may contain nuts" I certainly hope so, that is why I bought the bag!

  30. Wow...I am stunned by the stupidity of this. I'm with Fab Kate - I only go by the ingredient list and the nutrition info labels.

  31. Eh... baked potato chips ARE better than the greasy kinds so in that respect they are the "smart choice" but yea I'm with you on this. The smart choice is to avoid potato chips altogether. Doesn't stop me from buying them but I have no delusion about how good for me they are.

  32. I agree with you 100%. But, if it helps my challenged family from picking even worse foods to eat then maybe it has some use. At least it's a step, although a poor step, in the right direction? yes, a question mark b/c I think the companies should be held more acocuntable than that.

  33. Goodness - I have not laughed so hard in a long time! Esp. about the smart choices in prostitution... Perfect satire.

    And, for the record, I agree with you completely about the ridiculosity of the label.

  34. You are not even close to being too hard on the food manufacturers.

    Even though your post is outrageously funny (as usual), I'm too pissed off to laugh.

    Even though I don't expect better from the agra-Franken-food, deep pocketed monster.

  35. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry after I'd read the article. HOW are people supposed to learn how to read ingredient labels to help themselves now that THIS new system is working its deception all over the place? Froot Loops ...

  36. I'm with you 100%.

    The other day I was in a store and asked if they had any organic meat... and the guy said, "We have the chicken... the healthy chicken."

    (which was of course "natural" "healthy meals" conventional, grain-fed chicken...)

    And today I was at a restaurant and the menu said "We proudly serve grain-fed USDA approved Angus beef."

    So proud of your grain-filled omega-6-laden cows that you actually put it on your menu? I was beyond shocked.

  37. I'm going to stay on the SMART CHOICE diet and not eat anything labelled SMART CHOICE.

  38. I agree with you! We really have gotten away from the good old days of fresh, wholesome foods and rely on these processed foods so much. They are now "the diet" instead of just a treat or an extra. But, so many people do not understand what it is to eat in a healthy way and they try to find "a better for you" replacement for the junk they are normally used to eating. So, in that respect, maybe it's a step up for some, but I think the real "smart choice" is fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins:)

  39. I think we should all be furious about this. We have similar system in Australia that is just as flawed. We have a red tick that is the Heart Foundation tick of approval. It seems if food manufacturers give enough money they will put the 'tick of approval' on their processed products. Makes me mad!

    The sad part is the many Australian shoppers reach for these products in trust without reading the label because of that silly tick. It ticks me off!

  40. It's amazing what the FDA in compliance with a few genius marketing methods can do to convince us that eating sugar, starch and an obscene amount of carbs is healthy for us.

  41. AMEN!
    Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" has already been mentioned, but its an AWESOME book!

  42. I think that the "smart food" program is not smart! I do NOT think that you are being too hard on our nations food processors and who needs free crap, anyway? Fabulous post. I'm over here in the "amen" choir.

  43. This "program" strikes me as another example of your government thinking it's citizens are so stupid they can't figure out that a bowl of sugar-poops or a package of snack twinkos is not good for us.

    And, to be honest, for a lot of people it's about taste and convenience. Who wouldn't rather have a nice, stinky rutabaga for supper instead of gooey gloppy faux-cheese-n-macaroni?

  44. Have to admit I agree with a lot of these comments - especially about the food manufacturers, you are so right, that name alone gives cause for concern. I am striving to stick to nature's produce, however that can be hard with so many 'colourful' concoctions on sale - no wonder obesity is a problem!!!
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  45. Do you think anyone would object to me coming up with my own labels and putting them on items? Or just running around the supermarket,armed with a sharpie writing "anything but" in front of their ridiculous claims?

    Not that such things change people's minds at the vending machine. Any moron can tell you that the fig newtons are better for you than the gooey, fatty danish pastry, but that doesn't stop people from buying the latter more than the former.
    (based on the exhaustive research of walking past vending machines and seeing which lines are 'out')

  46. Great post. I can't believe some of the foods that are on the smart list.

  47. As Dr. Will Clower said in his book The French Don't Diet Plan, "This is the most stunning, mind-bending fact of our modern technological world. We are allowed, coached, and even encouraged to eat things that are not food."

    Real food has no labels.

  48. We've had this label in the Netherlands for quite some years now and everyone has the same concerns..

    Just because a particular product is a little less bad than another version, doesn't make it healthy.

    It's been on TV in all kinds of 'consumer awareness' programs and they're trying hard to get rid of the label.

    In the meantime, people keep claiming it's not about healthy food, but about the best option in a particular group, or 'the lesser evil'..

    Greetings from the netherlands!

  49. Agree with all above, if its got a label, be suspicious, and only look at the nutrition label, etc etc.

    But I will say this. The big corporations lie and do nasty, evil things in the name of profit, but ultimately they are at the whim of what the 'public' wants. They can only sell what the consumer is willing to buy. Obviously this label is a sign that even the fruit loops eaters are beginning to want nutrition, even if they haven't the first clue the crap they are shoveling into their mounths, and their kids' mouths. Even if its a total farce on the side of the corporations, I am hopeful that this may be a sign that the mentality of the general population is at a turning point where nutrition is beginning to be demanded...perhaps the next step is that the corporations will actually have to start supplying more healthful foods, foods containing actual nutrition.

  50. I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts and comments.


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