With three kids between the ages of 12 and 17, Susan Moores says grocery shopping can be a challenge. Her oldest son is a meat lover, her daughter is a vegetarian and her youngest child falls somewhere in between. Moores herself is a registered dietician, which means she also pays particular attention to the nutritional value of the products she puts in her cart.
Lately, the manufacturers have been trying to help her out. Fueled by consumer demand for products that are lower in calories and carbohydrates and higher in nutrients (and, perhaps, by a fear of obesity-related lawsuits akin to the successful smokers' suits against tobacco companies in the 1990s), some of the nation's largest food companies are launching labeling programs to identify their more nutritious products, and reformulating--or at least, repackaging--some of their most popular brands to fit the healthier criteria. "They don't want to get flogged for contributing to America's obesity problem," says Alan Lee, a New York-based registered dietician and nutrition consultant.
To that end, PepsiCo has launched a nationwide promotion for its Smart Spot program, which promotes healthy choices and marks products that have certain limits on fat, sodium or sugar and have been fortified with vitamins or reformulated to have particular health benefits. More than 100 of its products--from Tropicana orange juice to Quaker oatmeal to baked Lays potato crisps--now sport the Smart Spot symbol. Next month, Kraft launches its own version of the labeling program called Sensible Solutions: special green flags that will identify what the company calls "better for you" food choices. These have limits on the bad stuff, like fat, and a required amount of good stuff, like vitamins. Products that qualify range from fat-free Fig Newtons to Planter's lightly salted almonds.
Stouffer Foods' Lean Cuisine line recently introduced eight new Spa Cuisine entrees, identified by the yellow-and-red "100% whole grains" stamp on the package. Special symbols also advertise the health benefits of particular ingredients in products like Coca Cola's Minute Maid Heartwise, the first orange juice to contain plant sterols, which have been shown to help reduce cholesterol.
Even the National Automatic Merchandising Association launched a campaign early this year promoting a new color-coded guide to identify the nutritional value of foods in its vending machines. Items with a green sticker can be chosen frequently; yellow-tagged products occasionally and those with red stickers, rarely. The stickers could start appearing in a vending machines around the country by the end of the year. "We understand that there is no magic bullet to solve the problem of obesity, but we want to do our part," says Richard M. Geerdes, president and CEO of the association, which represents the vending- and food-service-management industries.
But is the growing proliferation of nonstandardized labels helping consumers make healthy choices or creating more confusion? A little of both, say nutritionists. While they applaud food makers for offering healthier options, some are concerned that the companies' varying criteria can be confusing for consumers.
As Kraft's executive vice president of corporate affairs, Mark Berlind, explains: ""Better for you' means exactly what it says. It doesn't necessarily mean healthy or good for you." Rather, he says, if a consumer wants to buy cookies, the Sensible Solution label alerts them to low-carb or low-calorie versions of such popular varieties as Chips Ahoy! and Oreos. Products that meet Kraft's Sensible Solutions criteria must either provide nutrients like protein, calcium, fiber or whole grains at "nutritionally meaningful" levels, or a health benefit like hydration, while staying within specific limits on calories, fat, sodium and sugar--or they have been reformulated to reduce or cut out calories, fat, sugar or sodium. That may explain why products like Velveeta cheese (though only slices that are four fifths of an ounce or less) and Planters Deluxe mixed nuts are included.
Similarly, PepsiCo's Smart Spot products are either fortified with wholesome ingredients; have limited fat, cholesterol or added sugar, or are reformulated to reduce fat, sugar and sodium, or provide specific health benefits. Baked Cheetos, which have 130 calories per serving and 5 grams of fat, make the cut, but so do Frito-Lay nuts, which pack 190 calories and 16 grams of fat per serving.
That is not to say that the products don't have health benefits. But Lee says, "Consumers still need to evaluate the food label itself and look at what category the product is in. Baked Cheetos may be better than regular Cheetos, but they are still Cheetos." The labels may help alert shoppers to healthier choices, but they don't replace the federally mandated nutrition labels on the back of the package. "The [new] labels give you a partial picture," says Moores. "You hope it will trigger people to flip the box over and look at the nutrition label and ingredients to get the full picture."
Between the two, nutritionists say consumers have all the tools--if they have the time to read them--to make informed choices. "All too often people say, I don't know if it's bad for me," says Lee. "When you are no longer in the dark, it is much harder to be in denial about making a bad food choice." Sales statistics indicate shoppers are making better choices. At PepsiCo, which began rolling out its Smart Spot labels last summer, sales of products in that category have been double those of the company's "core products" like regular sodas and snack food. "That just reinforces that this is what consumers are looking for," says PepsiCo spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez. "Clearly, health and wellness is one of the biggest growth opportunities in the food business."
About 200 of PepsiCo's products already carry the Smart Spot label. Berlind estimates that by the end of 2005, about 25 percent of Kraft products sold in the United States will qualify for its Sensible Solutions flag. And those numbers are likely to grow.
But you don't always need a label to figure out which foods are good for you. As Moores points out, some of the healthiest foods in the grocery store, like fruits and fresh fish, are unmarked. She recommends filling up on whole foods first then looking for labels on packaged products. And don't forget to check the nutrition label on the back too. "The food manufacturer's job is to sell food," she says. "It's our job to be as smart as we can about making sure we get what we want."