Food rating systems: A not-so-smart choice


When rushing through the supermarket, who has time to pore over Nutrition Facts labels and compare ingredient lists?

That’s why more than a dozen rating systems have been established to help shoppers identify healthful products. (1) Some, like the Guiding Stars program in Hannaford supermarkets, put rating information on food shelf tags below various products. (2) Others, like the controversial (and now on-hold) Smart Choices Program, put jazzy labels on the front of packages. (3) The problem with these programs is that they use varied, and sometimes dubious, rating systems.

Take Smart Choices as an example. Started by the country’s top food companies (ConAgra, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods, Pepsico, Unilever, and others), the program gave its seal of approval to foods that meet certain standards. Products could not exceed defined thresholds for fats (saturated, trans, total), sodium, cholesterol and added sugars, and were required to include calcium, fiber, or certain vitamins. (4) Under these guidelines, Apple Jacks, Cocoa Krispies, Cocoa Puffs, Corn Pops, Froot Loops, and Keebler Cookie Crunch—which all have 12 grams of sugar—got the same Smart Choices check mark as Cheerios (which has 1 gram of sugar).

“In principle, the Smart Choices seal could have been very useful for identifying foods that meet a high nutritional standard,” says Dr. Walter C. Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Heath Department of Nutrition. “However, the program’s standard was so low that even horrendous junk foods could qualify.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put the Smart Choices program on notice in August 2009 with a letter that it would be concerned if any front-of-package labeling system “used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.” (5)

In late October 2009, the FDA announced it was establishing an independent panel to propose standards that companies must follow if they want to put nutrition guides or labels on the front of packages. (6) Soon after that, Smart Choices announced that it would “voluntarily postpone active operations and not encourage wider use of the logo,” (7) and news reports say that the program’s key founding companies have agreed to phase out the logo from their products. (810)

Until the FDA’s proposed standards come along, it’s a good idea to make your own smart choices by reading Nutrition Facts labels and ingredient lists instead of relying on those that may be as interested in a company’s health as yours.


1. Nutrition rating systems: a comparison. Fooducate Blog. Last updated September 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

2. Hannaford Bros. What is Guiding Stars? Accessed November 2, 2009.

3. Smart Choices Program. Guiding food choices. Accessed November 2, 2009.

4. Smart Choices Program. Which foods get into the Smart Choices Program? Accessed November 2, 2009.

5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Letter to the Smart Choices program. Last updated August 19, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Background information on point of purchase labeling. Last updated October 21, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

7. Smart Choices Program. Press release: Smart Choices Program postpones active operations. Last updated October 23, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

8. Neumann W. Food label program to suspend operations. The New York Times: October 24, 2009, B1

9. Kraft Foods chooses to phase out ‘Smart Choices’ label. Last updated October 29, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.

10. Eight food manufacturers agree to drop Smart Choices logo. Last updated October 29, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2009.