Raisin Bran from Jewel, one of Supervalue’s grocery chains, provides consumers information through the Healthy Benefits seal (lower, left-hand corner), while Kellogg’s works to educate consumers on the Guideline Daily Amounts through its “Nutrition at a Glance” system (see upper, right-hand corner).

Kraft Foods has a “Sensible Solution,” Quaker Oats has “Smart Spot®,” General Mills has the “Goodness Corner™,” and Kellogg’s has Guideline Daily Amounts. The Center for Science in Public Interest has a petition to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to make such matters consistent, and FDA held a hearing, because multiple front-of-pack icons derived from different criteria have various meanings. This could potentially confuse consumers, motivating the need for a single, trusted and reliable system.

Enter the Keystone Center’s Smart Choices Program™, which debuted at the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) 2008 annual Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) held last October in Chicago. It is a voluntary, front-of-pack, unified labeling, “better-for-you” symbol designed to help shoppers make more nutritious food and beverage choices. Created by a unique coalition representing the food industry, academia, advocacy groups, health organizations and government liaisons, it is available to participating company products that meet the science-based nutrition criteria.

The Smart Choices Program Calorie Indicator clearly displays calories per serving and servings per package. The “Guiding Food Choices” green checkmark symbol indicates nutritious choices for easier comparisons within and across 18 different product categories. The coalition relied on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and additional sources of authoritative guidance from consensus science, including the FDA standard for “healthy,” U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) definition for “extra lean” and Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control reports to arrive at requirements. To qualify for the symbol, products cannot exceed standards for specific “nutrients to limit” and, for most categories, must also provide positive attributes: “nutrients to encourage” or “food groups to encourage.” Specific qualifying criteria were developed for groupings, such as beverages, cereals, meats, dairy and snacks, with alternative thresholds for food-specific variations, like those found in nuts, 100% juice and condiments. General benchmarks include:

* No more than: 35% of calories from total fat, 10% of calories from saturated fat, 0g labeled trans fat, 60mg cholesterol, 25% of calories from added sugars and 480mg sodium.
* Nutrients to encourage: calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E.
* Food groups to encourage: fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy.

Anticipated to begin appearing on many major brand packages in mid-2009, the intent is designed to be flexible and adaptable, allowing for revisions as new public policy, dietary guidelines and authoritative science emerges, along with encouraging innovation for food and beverage product development.

Results of an electronic survey sent to ADA members were also reported at the conference, revealing that roughly nine in 10 of the more than 5,500 respondents are aware of front package symbols or icons labeling consumer nutrition information. Nearly half responded that they instruct individuals they counsel to look for such graphics. Most respondents said they believe that a front pack system should be mandatory and include both “nutrients to consume more and less of.” About half of the participants indicated “facts about individual nutrients, including the absolute amount in a serving” and “how that particular food product fits into an overall diet” are most beneficial.

On the retailer front, Hannaford’s Guiding Stars® point-of-purchase supermarket system was also presented at the ADA’s 2008 FNCE as a means to help consumers quickly see which products have more vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and whole grains, and less saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sodium and added sugars. When compared to other foods within a category, the rating system works like this:
* One star = good nutritional value.
* Two stars = better nutritional value.
* Three stars = best nutritional value.
* No stars = does not meet the criteria for a star or the product is not rated by Guiding Stars.

Foods are scored by a balance of credits and debits. Items receive credits for vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, whole grains and DHA/EPA (fats/oils). They are debited for saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, added sodium and added sugars. The final algorithm’s general model is: (vitamins/minerals + dietary fiber + whole grains) -- (trans fats, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sodium, added sugars)/per 100Kcal. For meat/seafood/poultry/dairy/nuts, it is: (vitamins/minerals + dietary fiber) -- (trans fats, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sodium, added sugars)/per 100Kcal.

The resulting score from those total points represents a weighted total, and products receive one, two, three or zero stars. For packaged foods, criteria come from the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list. Data from the USDA national nutrient database is used for fresh produce, meats and seafood. To avoid confusion from comparing foods with different manufacturers’ serving sizes, a unit of 100 calories is used for consistent scoring across all products, though Hannaford stresses that the 100-calorie unit is not a recommended “serving size.”  NS

Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, is a freelance writer and president of Concept Nutrition Inc. (Bensalem, Pa.), which offers consulting services specializing in food labeling, nutrient analyses, marketing communications and cultural dietary practices. She can be reached at 215-639-1203, LS@FoodFactsWork.com or www.FoodFactsWork.com.