Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Smart Choices

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.


On Stage said...

Hi Dawn! Sounds like a great program. I have to ask... is that a picture of a "REAL" grocery store? Sure beats the Valparaiso, IN Walmart!

Candi said...

I knew you'd eventually have to go green with the rest of the country. I'm trying, but my heart isn't in it. I did start trying to eat more greens, though: Key Lime pie, pistachio pudding, mint ice cream, jalapeno (sp?) pepper jelly with cream cheese on woven wheat crackers. M-mmmmmm.

Lesley said...

I do nearly always eat healthily - well I have to seeing as I have a tummy which seems to dislike any type of food which is even slightly high in fat. However, the mere thought of bran flakes with blueberries for breakfast would send me running to the nearest McDs !!

jana said...

Smart Choice, or not, that's the most beautiful grocery store I've ever seen!

Dawn said...

No kidding! That store was gorgeous. I think it used to be a train station.

Anonymous said...

Really? Her last name's Bazilian? As in a bazilian dollars? That's awesome!

Mmmm, I'm likin' what I see in that cart! Bring on the mayo! Oh, and some Teddy Grahams dipped in peanut butter!

Vanessa Rogers said...

I think I have seen these check marks on items in the store. It has already started right?

Anonymous said...

Well, it didn't have a smart choice check mark on it, but I wanted to let you know that I tried coconut flavored M&M's today. They tasted like tiny, crunchy Mounds bars. Yum!!!

MaBunny said...

I've tried those bagelfuls - they are yummy! I will definitely looks for better choices!

Katrina Russo said...

This Smart Choices program sounds fantastic. I've been constantly trying to reinforce with my son what is a healthy choice and what is not. It'd be great to just be able to say, "for a snack, you can have one serving of a Smart Choice food."

Very neat that you got to be a part of this.

Frau Mahlzahn said...

Hi Dawn,

that does sound like a very good point to start from! With the exception of prepackaged pasta, I try to cook with fresh ingredients every day, but it still is hard to always make the smarter choice.

I really get upset about a lot of labels, as they suggest, e.g., that a product is whole grain, and then, at home, when I happen to look at the ingredients, it turns out, it's only a (very) small percentage that's whole grain.

I truely believe, however, that it is up to us customers to take charge of what we buy, and hopefully the companies will get the message soon!

So long,

Brian, Crystal & Gage said...

Hey, I saw a picture of you on www.bakerella.blogspot.com. I guess she was at the convention too!

Loren said...

A bit more about Smart Choices. There's a bit more to it - the companies they "approve" pay for it...


Love your blog -

Daniel P Bingham said...


Did you know that the following foods will be carrying the "Smart Choices" emblem:

Froot Loops
Apple Jacks
Corn Pops
Frosted Flakes
Lucky Charms
Cookie Crunch

Let’s be honest here – the point of the “Smart Choices” program is to short-circuit any actual health investigation by consumers and replace it with an easy “green means go!” decision.

Then there is the “better for you than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick” defense – that these products are Healthi”ER” choices than other products the consumer “COULD” select.

To quote Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board and the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, in a NYT article yesterday:

“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,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

A doughnut or Froot Loops?! Do these two choices really define the options for the parent “trying to think about healthy eating for your kids?” Are they doing all their grocery shopping at the gas station mini-mart? Why not a cube of butter, or maybe a shot of vodka? I’m sure these options contain more nutritional value than the hypothetical doughnut as well!

If Dr. Kennedy actually knows any such parents she should be calling child protective services, not designing a green box for them, because no doubt these parents left their kids in the car parked in the sun while in the grocery store trying to chose between doughnuts and fruit loops.

In all seriousness, I am in the PR business myself, and I was dismayed to see that Webber Shandwick played a part in this. Corporate America already has a trust problem, and this type of deceptive campaign will only make matters worse for everyone.

And really, who media-trained Dr. Kennedy?

I posted some additional thoughts on this program on my blog here: http://www.danielpbingham.com/?p=73

Dawn said...

Did YOU know that some people do indeed do their shopping at 7-11 because that's what's available to them? Did you know that many people can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables and junk food is a heck of a lot cheaper than whole, nutritious foods? This program is designed to HELP people make smarter choices. For people like you who know everything about nutrition and know how to make wise choices and can afford to do so, you don't have to worry about it. Is a little check mark going to change the way you buy food? No. So stop whining. This may, however, help your average person, shopping in a hurry, to make a little healthier purchasing decision. That's it. @@

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