Nutritional guide promotions: all part of a master plan?

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January 26, 2012

This is getting ridiculous. Just when I though I had thoroughly covered all the promotions using colored tags, stars, symbols and numbers that the food industry has designed to enable us to do “healthier” shopping, I find there are still more.

The concept was described as “an industry free-for-all in which different companies used different, and in many cases self-serving, symbols to communicate how healthful their products were” in a New England Journal of Medicine article last summer about the Nutrition Keys program, a front-of-package promotion since renamed ‘Facts Up Front.”

All these attempts to guide us toward purchasing decisions have come at a time when the Food and Drug Administration can’t seem to come up with any recommendations for new and easy-to-understand package nutrition labeling.

Despite the lack of any uniform standards, there appears to be no lack of willingness by supermarket chains,  grocery trade associations and brands themselves to take you by the hand while shopping. And although all these programs claim they can help simplify making “healthy” and “better for you” choices, they kind of give us a hint as to just how bad the choices are to begin with.

To add to my list of programs and promotions to help the confused consumer, I present:

Safeway’s “SimpleNutrition” program

Looking kind of like a board game, SimpleNutrition is comprised of 22 “benefit messages” under “two groups of messages” that are supposed to meet “lifestyle, dietary” and “specific nutrition or ingredient criteria.” Could anything be simpler than that?

Safeway (with over 1,500 stores in the U.S. alone), says its goal is to “make it quicker and easier to find better nutrition choices.” However after spending some time on their  “how it works” page, I’m still not exactly sure how it all works, But what I do know is there is something not quite right about giving a “benefit” shelf tag to foods simply because they are “sugar free,” which means they most likely contain artificial sweeteners, or because they are “natural ” especially since we know that “natural” is a pretty loose term under which a lot of nasty ingredients can be concealed. (Hey, if the FDA can’t define “natural” I’m sure not gonna count on Safeway to do so.)

Publix Markets’ “Nutrition Facts” tags

Apparently not bothered that “nutrition facts” is the exact same term the government requires for processed food packaging information panels, Publix, a Southern supermarket institution with over 1,000 stores, now features its own “Nutrition Facts” program that asks, “Who has time to analyze food labels? Luckily, when you shop with us, you don’t have to.”

This Publix promotion tips off its customers to foods that are “sugar-free,” “low fat” and “low calorie,” along with ten other nutritional superiority claims, via green, red and white shelf tags. Publix also takes a stab at defining “natural,” using brown tags for “all-natural” products, but the spokeswoman I talked to yesterday couldn’t say if items containing high fructose corn syrup, for example, would make the cut as “natural” or not.

Like similar attempts to help us do healthy shopping in a hurry, that information alone is not enough to tell us if in fact the products so designated are actually better for us. They could be worse choices – but only by reading the ingredient label could we make that distinction.

I will give Publix Markets credit, however, for what appears to be a major shift toward organic foods, including a small number of  upscale “GreenWise” stores selling even more organic selections.

Stop & Shop’s Healthy Ideas

The creative naming of these programs is pretty much the biggest difference between them. Stop & Shop, for example, wants us to have “a simple way to know it’s healthy”: all you have to do is look for the Healthy Ideas shelf tag!  Healthy Ideas tags are also on “nearly all the fruits and vegetables in the produce department.” Was that really necessary, Stop & Shop?

(Along with these helpful programs, I previously covered Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ,” industry-created “Facts Up Front,” “Guiding Stars,” and my favorite “what were they thinking” the NuVal scoring system.)

Not all such nutrition advice programs have gained public acceptance, however. Those that have already bit the dust include:

Smartspot, Pepsico’s self-serving “more nutritious” designations on its own brands, which was launched in 2004 and canned in 2010;

Sensible Solutions, a similar idea from the marketing gurus at Kraft, which made its debut in 2005 and was“put on hold” in 2009;

Smart Choices, a promotion designed and paid for by the food industry that got bad press when its ‘better-for-you’ icon started appearing on Kellogg’s Froot Loops packages. It came and went in 2009.

If I were the conspiracy type, I would say that all these instant information promotions are part of a master plan from the food industry to encourage us not to read ingredient labels. But as the New England Journal of Medicine article put it “A mantra of the food and beverage industry is that ‘there is no bad food.’”

But of course, there is. And not Publix or Stop & Shop or Supervalu, and certainly not the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is going to point it out to us. That’s up to you, the savvy shopper who won’t be fooled by the tricks of the trade.

Linda Bonvie,