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Consumer watch: Smart Choices Program guides shoppers to healthier products

Sep. 23, 2009 - 11:02AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 23, 2009 - 11:02AM  |  
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Recently you may have seen some products sporting new labels with green check marks in your commissary and other grocery stores. And while it could prove to be a useful tool for those who want to eat healthy, it's still no substitution for reading the nutrition labels yourself.

They are part of the new "Smart Choices Program" that can help you more quickly identify healthier items. The label instantly tells you two things: calories per serving and servings per package.

More importantly, it tells you that the product has met strict nutrition criteria that come from science-based dietary guidance, such as reports from the Institute of Medicine and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A manufacturer can legally put the Smart Choices symbol on a product only if that product has been certified by the nonprofit American Society for Nutrition and the nonprofit NSF International, both of which monitor and certify any product whose manufacturer wants the logo, said Kim Metcalfe, a spokeswoman for the Smart Choices Program.

In addition to meeting limits on such ingredients as fat, sugar and sodium, products may have to contain a "nutrient to encourage" such as 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, or vitamins A, C or E. A product also might qualify if it provides at least half a serving of a "food group to encourage" fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or fat-free or low-fat milk products.

While this program will help you find healthier products more quickly, you still need to do due diligence for your own dietary needs. The labels do not replace the nutrition facts box on packages. They are simply an additional marker on the front of the package designed to change consumer behavior, Metcalfe said.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not limit the amount of added sugar and sodium. But the coalition that put together Smart Choices applied some restrictions, Metcalfe said.

For example, the product must have than 480 milligrams of sodium, and added sugars should be less than 25 percent of the total calories but that still might be more than you want to eat. When you walk down the cereal aisle, you may see some boxes marked with the Smart Choices logo that you don't usually buy because of the added sugar. That shouldn't change.

When the guidelines change in 2010, the Smart Choices Program will adjust and products will be re-evaluated, Metcalfe said.

The program is voluntary manufacturers decide whether they want to submit their products for inclusion, and nutrition experts then decide if a product warrants the Smart Choices logo.

In the first two weeks after the program began in late August, about 2,000 products qualified, Metcalfe said, including items from manufacturers such as ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Tyson Foods Inc.

"Some products are being reformulated to qualify for the program," Metcalfe said.

All of this is good news for consumers who want healthier choices. But you'll still have work to do when shopping to ensure that the choices you're making are the best ones for you and your family.

Behind the label

A coalition of scientists, nutritionists, consumer organizations and food industry leaders developed specific nutrition criteria for 19 product categories, such as meat, fish and poultry; meat alternatives; cheese and cheese substitutes; milk, dairy products and dairy substitutes; fats, oils and spreads; desserts; and beverages. Fruits and vegetables with no additives automatically qualify, as do plain and carbonated water.

The coalition came up with general benchmarks:

Total fat must be less than 35 percent of total calories.

Saturated fat must be less than 10 percent of total calories.

The product must be labeled as having 0 grams of trans fat.

Cholesterol must be fewer than 60 milligrams per serving.

Added sugars must be less than 25 percent of total calories.

Sodium must be fewer than 480 milligrams per serving.

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