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Beware of "Smart Choices" Next Time You're Shopping

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

The most recent attempt by the food industry to help people make better decisions about the groceries they purchase will likely make them more confused than ever. The new program  called the "Smart Choices Program," aims to highlight foods in stores that could be considered "healthy." Before you run to the store and pick out all of the foods with the new green checkmark, be sure you know what it is you are purchasing.

Creation of the Smart Choices Program

The philosophy of the program was to create standards for products that follow guidelines from the Dietary Guidelines for American's. For an annual fee of approximately $100,000, food companies can enroll in the program. As long as their food products meet the requirements of the program, they can feature the label on the front of the packaging. This will also eliminate the need for these manufacturers to show their own unique logos to make the product appear more healthy. This is not a program developed by the government. It was developed by many of the leading food companies in partnership with the American Society for Nutrition. Before believing the products that bear the new symbol are actually what you should incorporate into your nutrition program, we'll take a look at what the labels actually mean.

What is a "Smart Choice?"

According to the program, the generic benchmarks for being considered a "smart choice" include the two following points:

1. Nutrition must be less than the following

<35% calories from fat

<10% calories from saturated fat

< 25% calories from added sugar

0 g trans fat

< 60 mg cholesterol

< 480 mg sodium

2. Must include one of the following

> 10% daily value of ONE of the following: calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C OR vitamin E

One serving of ONE of the following food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free/low-fat milk products

As long as a processed food can meet the criteria, it can be considered a "Smart Choice." This means that a huge list of highly-processed foods will bear the logo. While the intention of the program may have been to help consumers make faster, healthier decisions, there are certainly some flaws in the program.

Where are the whole foods?

If you review the list of Smart Choice foods, you will quickly see that almost all of the products listed are processed foods. Processed foods may be used on occasion, but the bulk of a nutritious diet should come from whole foods, which are prepared from their natural state. According to our Life Time Fitness Nutrition Philosophy, the majority of food people consume should come from whole foods. For convenience, a protein shake or meal replacement shake can be beneficial, but at least three times a day, real food should be eaten. A better decision may have been to hang a Smart Choice banner over the areas containing fresh foods, such as the fruit, vegetable, meat, dairy and egg sections of the grocery store.

Does the program favor large food manufacturers?

Will the smaller organic food companies get involved with this program? It may depend on whether they can justify the expense. Even if they are willing to invest the $100,000, the Smart Choice logo on a box of Fruit Loops would be the same logo that would be on a box of Peanut Butter Panda Puffs, which is a gluten-free organic cereal made by Nature's Path. They are far from the same in their nutrition value, but would bear the same logo.

Checking the list of dairy products today, nothing was listed. However, a few days ago, the list included dozens of fat-free dairy products. From a consumer's standpoint, it will easily appear that the fat-free, pasteurized, homogenized commercial milk products are healthier than the non-homogenized, fat-containing, organic milk products coming from grass-fed cows. If you'd like to learn more about the difference, check out the Experience Life article Skimming the Truth. It is not likely a local farm which produces real milk would invest in the logo, and some products that are higher in fat content may not qualify even though they provide far more nutrition. There are also no whole eggs on the list, but there are pasteurized, fat-free egg products.

Most Surprising Foods Making the "Smart Choices" List

In reviewing the list of products which will feature the Smart Choice logo, I picked out some of the products that seemed the most out of place. The list will continue to grow as more products are approved for the logo, or as more companies participate in the program. Most interesting is the fact that the cereal category currently contains 203 products! I'm not sure how many cereals actually fit on the shelf of most grocery stores, but it seems odd that a food which is considerably processed, fortified, low in protein, high in carbohydrates, low in good fats, and generally high in sugars would be considered a Smart Choice.

Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board, told the New York Times, "You're rushing around, you're trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal. So Froot Loops is a better choice." Most consumers don't need help understanding doughnuts are not a good choice, but whatever happened to eggs and oatmeal for breakfast? Short on time, what about a fruit and protein shake? Below are some products that really seemed out of place receiving a Smart Choice logo:

Sun-Maid Mixed Fruit - Though there are not any additives, it has 100 calories, 26 grams of carbs and 21 grams of sugar per serving, which is only 1.4 ounces. Yes, it comes from whole fruit, but since it is dried, people will eat far more than if they ate fresh fruit.

Cereals: Apple Jacks, Cocoa Krispies, Fruit Loops Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms. Some of these cereals contain high fructose corn syrup. None of them provide much of a protein source or other whole-food nutrients.

Processed Meats: The majority of the meats considered "smart choices" are processed meats because of their lower levels of fat. Unfortunately, because of the processing, many of the products have had nutrients removed and the healthy fats that may have been in them at one point, are now removed. Many processed meats also contain extra preservatives. It may also appear to consumers that these processed foods are healthier than the grass-fed, organic, free-range options in the meat section because those products may not have paid for the label. Whole food, organic meats will be higher in healthy fats, but because of the fat content may not qualify for the label.

One other list of products really stood out because of its target market being kids: Kid's Cuisine line of microwavable meals. This is a great example of out of place many of these product are in a list of "smart choices." The following is a list of the ingredients for the Kid Cuisine Cheeseburger meal:

Beef patty on bun: BEEF PATTY: beef, beef broth (water, beef stock), textured soy protein concentrate, onions, salt, flavors

HAMBURGER BUN: whole wheat flour, whey, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed oils), water, enriched bleached flour (what flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, {vitamin B2}, folic acid), yeast, wheat gluten, contains 2% or less of the following: distilled vinegar, dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: mono- and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylates, calcium peroxide, ascorbic acid) salt, cellulose gum, yeast nutrients (monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate), corn starch, soy lecithin, soy flour.

Pasteurized processed American cheese slice: (cultured milk, salt, enzymes, artificial color), water, cream, sodium citrate, contains less than 2% of salt, sodium phosphate, citric acid, acetic acid, sorbic acid (preservative), soy lecithin, artificial color


French Fries: potatoes, canola oil, salt, disodium dihydrogen phosphate (to promote color retention), coloring (caramel color, annatto extract, turmeric), dextrose

Fruit flavored snack: fruit juice concentrate (apple, white grape), sugar, corn syrup, unmodified and modified cornstarch, ascorbic acid, citric acid, artificial and natural flavor, mineral oil, carnauba wax, artificial color (red 40, yellow 6, blue 1, red 3), water, sugar.


Most likely, the concept of the "Smart Choices" program came from someone well-intentioned, who wanted to help consumers understand what products were best for their health. It appears to have evolved into more of a way to have consumers rely on more processed foods for their diet. If consumers really need education on what to eat to help combat the obesity epidemic and improve overall health, it's not likely the answer will be found on the covers of processed food packages.

I assume that many of the people reading this article will be able to understand what a real smart choice is when it comes to choosing foods in the grocery store. Part of the Life Time Fitness vision statement says that we want to be a "macro healthy way of life company and brand." That means we hope to have an impact beyond the walls of our fitness centers. One of the ways we can do that is by hoping our members (and other readers) can help share what they learn about health and fitness. The next time you are at the store and see people who are really trying to make good decisions, please help them out. They may not have the knowledge you do, and may end up buying products based on the label, not knowing that the best choices may not have that logo. If you're not comfortable with that, maybe just share this post with them. Shop smart. Eat well. Supplement right. Be healthy.


Neuman, W. For Your Health, Froot Loops. New York Times. Sept 4, 2009

Glover, K. Froot Loops Unfortunate Mascot for Smart Choices Program. BNET

Helgoe, C. Skimming the Truth. Experience Life Magazine. September, 2009.

Smart Choices Website: 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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