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Healthy Tip of the Month

A New Way to Spot Healthy Foods Fast

In our hurried, time-crunched lifestyles, most of us race around the grocery store gathering about 61 items in less than half an hour. That amounts to fewer than 30 seconds per choice -- not enough time to flip over the package and check the food labels and nutrition information. 

With time at a premium and the obesity epidemic not slowing down, shoppers need help to make the healthiest food choices. 

Consumers are confused and looking for guidance in understanding nutrition labels.  To help consumers make those decisions easier, grocery stores, manufacturers, trade groups, and health organizations have developed nutrition grading systems either on the front of the package or as a shelf tag beneath food products. 

Nutrition rating programs are designed to improve diets by making shopping quicker, easier and healthier.  “Nutrition profiling programs have done the work to help consumers identify more healthful choices within categories, so use them to guide you to make better-for-you choices” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Kerry Neville, MS, RD.

From Heart Checks to Shelf Labels

Shoppers today will see a variety of nutrition rating programs when they go to the grocery store. One of the most well-known nutritional icons on food packages is the American Heart Association’s (AHA) heart check. The heart check indicates that the food meets the AHA’s criteria for foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.   

Hanaford Brothers supermarkets followed the AHA trend in 2006 when they launched their "guiding stars" program, which notes healthier choices on shelf tags next to the food price. Since then, many supermarket chains have followed suit with their own programs. But each grocery chain uses different rating systems. And they put their ratings on the shelf tags, not on the food package itself. 

Welcome Newcomer Smart Choices

Smart Choices is the latest and most comprehensive program to join the growing list of nutrient rating programs.

The Keystone Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to public health, brought together scientists, health groups, and food manufacturers to create this new national program. The Smart Choices green checkmark can appear on packaged foods that:

Smart Choices, so far, is the only national program to consider all elements of healthy eating in its nutritional rating system. It’s a voluntary program, but already many major food manufacturers have adopted the green checkmark, including ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, Pepsico, and Unilever.

Grocery shoppers will start seeing the green checkmark, along with calories per serving, on the front of many packaged foods in supermarkets throughout the U.S. in the summer of 2009.  

“With the obesity epidemic as the driver in nutrition, everyone needs to pay more attention to calories with an emphasis on getting the most nutrients per calorie.  We wanted to focus on calories to help people stay within their daily calorie needs,” explains Smart Choices’ coalition member Susan Borra, RD.  

The coalition hopes to build national trust based on its simple checkmark and hopes it will eventually be adopted by all major food companies.

“Our goal was to create one simple icon, regardless of the brand, that sent a consistent message to the consumer that the product met scientific criteria and was a smart choice” says Eileen Kennedy, DSc, RD, another coalition member and a Tufts University nutrition professor.

Using Nutritional Rating Programs to Improve Your Diet

Nutritional checkmarks and shelf labels provide an easy way to choose healthier packaged foods. However, not all programs share the same high standards. Before you trust the icon, be sure to check the accuracy by glancing at the nutrition label on the back of each package, says food labeling expert Constance Geiger, PhD, RD. 

“Once you know you can trust the information, it will help you make healthier choices,” says Geiger. Still, it’s a mistake to rely on packaged foods alone.

Many fresh foods -- such as produce, fish, and lean meats – are not included in these nutritional rating programs because they are not packaged by a large food manufacturer. Yet they should definitely be in your grocery cart. 

“In the produce section, everything is good for you” explains Nashville nutrition expert Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD.

Will Rating Symbols Help or Confuse Grocery Shoppers?

It’s not yet clear whether nutritional rating programs will help or confuse shoppers.  Some, such as Smart Choices and the AHA heart check, use published standards, while some use undisclosed formulas.

There are so many competing programs in the stores that a survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association in 2008 found that only 35% of consumers found food package health symbols credible. Yet 67% of the same consumers said they rate diet and nutrition as very important when they shop.

What’s a grocery shopper to do? Neville suggests that you check the web sites of the leading programs to understand the nutritional criteria they use. Once you find a comprehensive program that you trust, look for that icon on packaged foods.

Any checkmark or rating that steers you toward foods lower in saturated fat, sodium, and sugar – and higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals – is a step in the right direction.

SOURCES: Kerry Neville, MS, RS, American Dietetic Association spokesperson.Constance Geiger, PhD, RD, nutrition labeling expert.Susan Borra, RD, executive vice president, Edelman; former IFIC Foundation president; member, The Keystone Center coalition.Eileen Kennedy, DSc, RD, dean and nutrition professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University.Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD, nutrition expert, Nashville, Tenn.

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on 6/29/2009

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