By Carly Smolak
As if our obsessive-compulsive nutrition culture was not frenetic enough with the deluge of conflicting reports and industry funded studies about diet, a new food labeling project called “Smart Choices” has recently unveiled its pseudo certification to help shoppers identify “smarter food and beverage choices.”
“Smarter Choices” for consumers include Froot Loops and Cocoa Crispies. Yes, that’s right, sugar-laden cereals are considered smarter dietary choices according to the certification. Ellen T. Kennedy, a researcher from Tufts who presides over the “Smart Choices” board (apparently unpaid), defended products endorsed by the label in a New York Times interview, arguing that sugary cereals are a better choice than a donut.
Right. And a donut is better than a bag of crack. Perhaps they should reconsider blacklisting fried, sugary confections.
The program’s criteria is supposedly based on government dietary guidelines, standards that suspiciously align with corporate food industry interests. Not unlike the FDA’s food regulations, it comes as no surprise that the “Smart Choice” label is backed by major food corporations like ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Tyson Foods. What’s more is that fees for bearing the “Smart Choice” label are based on the sales of those products that carry the seal. Translated, this means that it is in the interest of “Smart Seal” to stamp a label on the most widely consumed products—processed foods– the same products that are largely responsible for America’s obesity epidemic.
Yet another misleading dietary guideline while we are trying to get sugary sodas and processed foods out of our school systems with experts repeatedly finding that the healthiest diets are comprised of primarily of whole, unprocessed foods. All of this amidst an unrelenting obesity epidemic and whirlwinds of diet fads.
Corrupt federal food recommendations are the crumbly foundation upon which the massive food epidemic is built. What we need is an independent recommendation for dietary consumption that is insulated from the lobbying power of industry. What we are witnessing right now is a nutritional house of cards, built upon the ill advised federal nutritional guidelines that were constructed specifically to increase demand of corporate processed foods.
In Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” he famously suggests that we should “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Instead of such rational advice, large agribusiness, he argues, encourages consumers to focus on eliminating certain macronutrients in a trend like fashion. The low-fat trend evolved into a low-carb mania. But what these health crazes really end up doing is INCREASING overall consumption. As Pollan points out, the American population is fairly stable, and stomachs aren’t getting any bigger. The only way to grow the market, therefore, is to increase per capita consumption. And that is exactly what these fads do. The “Smart Choice” seal is just another tool to keep consumer demand of processed foods high.
What’s surprising about all of this is that poisoning your consumers is just bad business. Instead of backing false advertising, like “Smart Choice,” these large companies should be thinking about how to better serve their customers. This will undoubtedly involve visionary leadership and tough decisions. Because America’s food dysphoria is one giant clinical trial, and the proof will continue to be in the pudding. We witnessed what happened when the American car companies chose to invest in false advertising and lobbying against fuel efficiency standards instead of adapting to a changing world. Maybe large food companies are next.
Carly Smolak has a BA from Stanford and is finishing her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time gardening, cooking, cycling, and surfing.