03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Smart Choices Checkmate

The next time you go grocery shopping you may notice little green checkmarks popping up on an increasing number of food products. The checks are accompanied by the words "Smart Choices." Other than the manufacturer telling you you're smart for buying its product, what do these labels really mean?

The labels identify products that a group of manufacturers, dieticians, and academics have agreed qualify as more healthful for you than others. For example, a package of baked chicken would be better for you than would a package of fried chicken.

What do you really need to know about these checkmarks in order to make a genuinely smart choice? First of all, the labels are not from the federal government, any state government, or even a professional medical association. The non-profit Keystone Center headquartered in Keystone, Colorado coordinated the program. The center specializes in coalition-based public health solutions.

"If people would look at the science behind the program, they would get it," says Michael Hughes, spokesperson for Keystone. He asserts anyone eating only Smart Choice items over the course of an entire day would have a healthy diet. This is based on an intake of 2,000 calories for an adult.

However, some dieticians and nutrition organizations have criticized the program as stretching the food pyramid for the benefit of manufacturers. ( "What really concerns us is taking a product that is actually not very nutritious and fortifying it with vitamins and calling it a healthy choice," says Kathy Isoldi, a registered dietitian and certified diabetic educator in Manhattan.

One of the first items that would appear to fall into this category is kids' cereal. Long criticized for its sugar content, breakfast cereals are also fortified with vitamins and minerals. Under Smart Choices a cereal with 12 grams of sugar per serving would qualify as healthy. This adds up to slightly less than one tablespoon per serving, since it takes 14 grams of sugar to equal one tablespoon.

Dietitians balk at that amount as too sugary to be considered. Keystone maintains this is less than some cereals had before and several such as Kellogg's Froot Loops have actually lowered the sugar content to get that check.

According to the information posted on the program's website, foods must contain at least one nutrient, such as vitamin C. In addition, the products cannot exceed nutrients to limit, such as saturated fat, sodium and sugar.(

"We are the only thing out there that gives the consumer a website where they can look up the information used to back up the claim on the package," says Hughes. So, who does the testing? The American Society for Nutrition and the National Science Foundation International are the two groups responsible for certifying products submitted. Manufacturers do have to pay for the testing, from $2500 for a small company with a few products to $50,000 for some of the big food makers.

"That can still eliminate a small food producer who can't afford to participate and put a good product at a disadvantage," says Isoldi. She goes on to add that one of the best means of taking tally of the nutrition content is to look at the back-of-package label, which is closely monitored by the FDA.

This new Smart Choices program is not a perfect system by admission. However, it does offer consumers something they did not have before, consistency. Each participating food maker must meet the same criteria as the others. Those checkmarks might prove to be a useful tool. The manufacturers are hoping it will also make their products popular.

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