Foods 50% sugar still labeled smart choices? FDA warns: Red light!

My 4-year-old son believes that "good for you" foods are anything that is "good" and "for him." Sweet cereal? Fruit roll-ups? Candy? Yes, yes, YES! I've so far been unable to convince him that "good for you" doesn't just mean "yummy."

Over the past several months, a consortium of food manufacturers have been as stubborn as my preschooler, using wildly inapt guidelines to determine that products such as frozen ice pops and Froot Loops are "Smart Choices." To determine which products qualify the group -- which includes Kraft Foods, Kellogg, and General Mills -- considers calories per serving and fat content, among other thing. And, given that criteria, sure enough candy CAN be a smart choice. Every little boy and girl would agree.
But the FDA warns it's about to throw in a symbol even the toddlers can wrap their brains around: red light! As FDA Commissioner and new mom's best friend, Margaret Hamburg, said in a call with reporters today, "There are products that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50% sugar."

In the FDA's announcement, Hamburg said she "expected" that new labeling would soon be required, pointing as an example to "a package-front labeling program in Britain that uses red, yellow or green dots - like traffic signals - to indicate the relative amounts of important ingredients." That labeling system, which is also found on food packages in Australia, was reported to induce "a reduced intention to purchase products with red and amber nutrient classifications" in a survey of 790 consumers there.

Images of the U.K. symbols on the web site Grist are startling indeed, and would certainly be an effective counterpoint to the "Smart Choices" check mark developed by the marketing geniuses of the packaged food industry. Not only could I quickly assess which products to buy, my husband (who tends to be motivated by simple rules) and my children could see in a glance whether or not I'd accept a product for potential inclusion in our grocery cart. A red "high sugar" stoplight would have even a harried parent hesitating as she rushed through the supermarket aisles. As it is, so many different symbols are in use, greatly confusing consumers who hardly have a cheat sheet handy to know if the American Heart Association's recommendations are more or less trustworthy than those from a manufacturer's group, a grocery store itself, or some savvy marketing that gives new meaning to the old saw, "you can prove anything with statistics."

Also of concern is whether labels are even accurate to begin with. the FDA doesn't have resources to test each product to see if it has the ingredients advertised on the nutrition facts label, and independent tests even found some "sugar free" products that contained sugar. Sigh.

As it is, I'm sticking with Michael Pollan's (the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma) rule: Don't buy any food you've ever seen advertised. Although I offer up a slight variation: Don't eat anything that has its own cartoon character.
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