October 30, 2009



Getting smart about the ‘Smart Choices’ label

How can you tell when a consumer product might be one you should avoid? Easy. Whenever a corporate spokesperson declares that the product in question "complies with all U.S. laws and regulations" — run away as fast as you can.

After all, for the past couple of decades, industry has essentially been the one writing the laws and regulations.

Now, the food industry has written its own private regulation for a nutritional label. It's a snappy green-and-white logo to designate certain edibles as nutritionally desirable. A panel led by brand-name food manufacturers developed a loosy-goosy criteria for letting a product use the "Smart Choices" label. So goosy, in fact, that Kelloggs's Froot Loops qualifies as nutritionally sound, even though it is 41 percent sugar! Likewise, products with cancer-causing additives, saccharine and caffeine get the Smart Choices approval.

While private interests, with no governmental sanction, devised the green checkmark certification it is now garnering the government oversight that food corporations had hoped to bypass. The attorney general of Connecticut, who says the label seems "overly simplistic, inaccurate, and ultimately misleading," is investigating whether it violates that state's consumer protection law. He's also probing whether the criteria for certification of products were "shaped by an advertising strategy rather than scientific evidence" — a question that seems to be answered by the Froot Loops loophole.

In addition the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, finally awakening from its long Bush-induced regulatory stupor, is now scrutinizing how "smart" the Smart Choices program really is. So, the irony is that the industry's deceptive PR ploy might end up producing a valid nutritional label that actually serves the interest of consumers.

For more information on Jim Hightower's work — and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown — visit www.jimhightower.com.