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When Food Labels Lie
Why Healthy, Sensible or Smart on the front of a box may not mean anything at all.

Grocery Shopping

Looking over a section of food in the supermarket, it can be difficult to tell which particular brand may be the healthier option. Nutrition labels are confusing and it takes time to read them. To help you choose, food companies have decided to put custom seals on their fittest foods so they stand out.

With feel-good names like "Sensible Solution," "Smart Choices," or "Diabetes Friendly," it would seem like the food conglomerates are finally doing something about helping shoppers make intelligent decisions.

Don't count on it.

Smart Spot  Smart Spot was launched by Pepsi in 2004. (The Smart Spot program was discontinued.) To get the Smart Spot label a Pepsi product must have at least:

  1. 10% of the Daily Value of a targeted nutrient (i.e., protein, fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C) and meet limits for fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugar, OR

  2. It must be formulated to have specific health or wellness benefits OR

  3. It must be reduced in calories or nutrients such as fat, saturated fat, sodium or sugar.

Products like breakfast cookies with 15 grams of sugar per cookie, sports drinks loaded with 800 milligrams of sodium per 32 ounce bottle and chips that have 6 grams of fat in a single ounce serving have all been given the Smart Spot label.

None of those are genuinely healthy choices. To be fair, if you're going to eat potato chips, the baked Smart Spot ones are better for you than the traditional full-fat ones. But instead of pushing more chips, cookies and soda, what we should be eating are fruits, vegetables and drinking more water. But Pepsi isn't the only company with a healthy label.

Sensible Solution  Sensible Solution is the name Kraft Foods gave to its healthier foods label program. (The Sensible Solution program was discontinued.) Rolled out in 2007, the criteria Kraft uses to put Sensible Solution on the label are that the food must:

  1. Provide beneficial nutrients such as protein, calcium or fiber/whole grain at nutritionally meaningful levels, or delivering a functional benefit, such as heart health, while staying within specific limits on calories, fat (including saturated and trans fat), sodium and sugar; OR

  2. Meet specifications for "reduced," "low," or "free" in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar or sodium.

That means a product like Oscar Mayer Lunchables, Pizza Pepperoni Flavored Sausage, with 440 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat (the bad kind of fat) and 35 grams of sugar (nearly a full days worth) can get the Sensible Solution seal on its label. The label may seem like a good idea, but when it's used to push unhealthy foods, it becomes nothing more than an empty marketing message.

Diabetes Friendly  Diabetes Friendly is the label the Kellogg Company decided to create for their healthier alternatives. (The Diabetes Friendly program was discontinued.) Eating a balanced diet is critical for the 20 million Americans with diabetes. That's why a label that can help people pick out foods that won't mess-up their blood sugar should be a hit.

Unfortunately, Kellogg decided to put the Diabetes Friendly seal on cereals like Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies. Both are lower in sugar than their counterparts, but neither has any appreciable amount of fiber in them. Since fiber is an important way to manage blood sugar levels, it's a mystery why there's no requirement for a "Diabetes Friendly" product to have fiber in it.

The problems with all three labels are significant.

  1. They're all company-specific. Each seal can only appear on the products of the company that designed the program.

  2. There's no way to compare one program against another because they use different criteria to judge.

  3. The criteria they use to designate which foods are "healthier" have gaping holes. When cookies, pizza and soda can be considered a healthy option, something is wrong with the whole rating system.

What's needed is an outside company to put together a meaningful way to quickly compare one brand against another. If you're looking for healthier foods, ignore the marketing hype on the front of the box.

UPDATE 12/25/2020

A decade after we first wrote this article, every one of these programs has been discontinued without any meaningful changes being put in place. If you're buying snacks in a package, it's probably an unhealthy choice. Find ways to incorporate more whole fruits and vegetables in your diet.

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Updated 12/25/2020