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Smart Choices and Why Categories Matter

Posted 30 October 2009 by Anastasia O'Rourke to Opinion.

Defining what is good is really hard. Defining what is “better” slightly easier, but still tricky. And making that into a simple label that clearly says to people “this is good, buy this” is also harder than it seems, as label-geeks well know.

Today we hear that the Smart Choices program has been scaled back in response to mounting criticism. What lessons can be gleaned for eco-labels and green claims?

The Smart Choices program had set criteria for foods in 19 categories, including cheeses; snack foods and sweets; breakfast cereals; fats, oils and spreads; meals and entrees. Automatically qualifying are fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables without additives. Then, within each category the label indicates products that have met the criteria of being more “healthful”, based on: limiting substances  (including fats, sugars and sodium); nutrients to encourage (such as calcium, fiber and some vitamins and minerals); and food groups to encourage (fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low- or nonfat dairy).

Sounds pretty logical. The problem, it seems, is that the limits set were just not strict enough and did not match broader conceptions of “healthful”. So that the now classic example of fruit-loops qualifying for the Smart Choices label simply did not pass the sniff (or laugh) test and subsequently raised the ire of harder core nutritionists and the skeptical eye of various government officials.

There are some analogies we can draw here between “healthful” and “nutritional” and “green” and “eco-friendly”. These are hard concepts to pin down, subject to a range of opinions, science that changes over time, and depend very much on what you are comparing yourself to.

So for those into green or eco- labels, the first lesson is one of choosing the right categories and benchmark groups. So Fruit Loops might be better nutritionally than doughnuts for breakfast, but compared to my home-made museli? Not so much.

Secondly, setting limits within those bounds needs to be carefully considered, tested and measured.

The debate over Smart Foods also reminds me of discussions over clean coal. Yes its cleaner-coal (compared to regular coal delivering electrical power), but is it really clean? Well, perhaps not compared to wind power or other renewable energy resources.

How boring I am becoming: categories matter and so do benchmarks. Much more fun to think about scandals involving fruit loops, cocoa pops, cakes, pastries etc. Afternoon tea break time clearly!

Interested to hear people’s perspectives on what is going on with Smart Choices.

  • Has anything emerged as a leading alternative to Smart Choices. Agreed that a program that classifies Frooty Loops as a smart choices clearly is not very bright, but having another ‘smarter’ guideline / certification would still be helpful.