I was invited to New York to learn about the new Smart Choices food labeling program. You may have already seen my pictures from Times Square. If not, you can check them out HERE. Yeah, there were some strange folks walking around New York City. And there were 7 awesome bloggers there too. After my 5 hour plane ride (thanks to rain delays) to New York, I met up with Elizabeth, Meghan, Carmen, Daniel, Asha, Jo-Lynne for a fabulous dinner at La Trattoria dell'Arte. I sat across the table from Wendy Bazilian and her husband who are slim, healthy, and fit. I mean, she's a nutrition expert and author of The SuperFoods Rx Diet, right. And here I am, ordering wine, fried eggplant with rigatoni, and some sinful lemon dessert. Uh huh. That's making a smart choice, no?
The next day, we headed to the Food Emporium where Wendy led a little tour around the store while explaining the Smart Choices program. Here it is in a nutshell - The Smart Choices program is a universal labeling program. Any company can apply to have their food labeled, but no food receives the Smart Choices check mark unless it meets specific dietary criteria (which you can find HERE.) The criteria was established by a coalition of scientists, academicians, nutrition educators, public health organizations, food manufacturers, retailers and government observers. Nutritional criteria are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reports by the Institute of Medicine, and others. The Smart Choices program is a non-profit organization that, I think, will benefit everyone.
Yes, we can always look up the nutrition information on the back of packages and compare fat and fiber and sodium grams. We can figure out which items are the best source of vitamin D or calcium, or iron. And really, we should. But, let's face it - sometimes when we're at the grocery store (you know, like when we have our kids with us) we want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. The Smart Choices program helps with that. If you're shopping for cereal, for example, you can rest assured that it has met the dietary criteria for a wise choice if the box carries the Smart Choice check mark. Now, that's not to say if a box doesn't have the Smart Choices seal, it's a poor choice, however, as not all companies will apply to have their products labeled.
Families are spending more time cooking and eating together at home. It's a lot cheaper and healthier than going out to eat or driving through your local fast food joint. Americans are not only spending more time cooking and eating together at home, but we're also trying to eat a little healthier. Sure, ideally, it would be great if we were all eating homecooked meals using fresh, whole foods, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats and low fat dairy products. But in the real world, we use a lot of prepackaged foods. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Prepackaged foods save us time and help us to join together for a family dinner. Can you use prepackaged foods and still eat healthy? Sure! Some foods are healthier than others though. Whole grain pasta is a better choice than pasta made with bleached white flour, for example. The Smart Choices program takes the work out of figuring out which foods are healthier choices than others. If a food has the check mark - it's a smarter choice.
If you have specific dietary concerns (maybe you're trying to lose weight, you're diabetic, you're pregnant), you want to check the nutrition labels. Perhaps a box of cereal meets the Smart Choice criteria for the check mark, but may still contain a bit too much sugar if you're diabetic. Yes, the Smart Choice label won't automatically tell you which foods to eat and which to avoid, however, I do think it's a good starting point.
I love Wendy's attitude about eating healthier. You don't have to do a 180 degree change in your diet to be healthier. You can make positive changes wherever you're at - whether you eat fast food every day, or you cook all your meals with whole foods. Every small, positive change you make helps. Forgo the giant bagel slathered with cream cheese and have a bowl of bran flakes with blueberries for breakfast. Perhaps, when you're sitting across the table from Wendy, you could opt to order the fresh watermelon for dessert instead of something that "sits atop of bed of whipped cream". Ahem. Anyway, it's not a big change. But it's a smarter choice. Little things like that add up. This labeling program helps with that.
In the end, I don't think this program will solve America's dietary and health problems, but I do think it's a very good starting point. The Smart Choices program will help many people navigate the myriad of choices and make healthier, smarter choices with their simple, universal labels.
ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kelloggs, Kraft, PepsiCo, Tyson and Unilever are some of the companies who already have foods that have qualified for the program and there are sure to be many more to follow in the very near future. Take a look the next time you're at the grocery store and see if you can find some green, Smart Choices check marks.