The nation's dietitians, food makers and retailers want you to know how many calories are in that frozen pizza you ate last night – and they don't want you to have to go looking for it.
Amid widespread concern about obesity rates, eating habits and exercise patterns, they say they'll help people make better eating choices by designating thousands of products as part of the new Smart Choices Program and adding nutritional information to the front of packages.
The labels, featuring calories per serving and number of servings, will likely be on products – starting next year – from food and beverage companies such as Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., organizers say.
The goal of the program, to be unveiled Monday at the American Dietetic Association's Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, is to get people to make smarter food choices and thus improve public health.
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Dr. Eileen Kennedy, a member of the coalition, said they want to take the guesswork out of food choices.
The labels will have two parts. First, there will be a green check mark and the “Smart Choices Program” label for foods that meet certain nutritional requirements within some categories. The other part highlights the calories per serving and the servings per container.
Academics such as Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, along with food manufacturers, retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and groups such as the American Heart Association have spent nearly two years working on the program.
They didn't want to base it entirely on the USDA's food pyramid – which Kennedy has worked on – she said, because it doesn't truly reflect how people eat and how people buy food. Studies have shown only 2 percent to 4 percent of Americans have diets that meet those guidelines, she said. People eat from more categories than what's on the pyramid, so the new labels reflect that, she said.
“When a mom walks down an aisle she wants to know what is a ‘better for you' choice, either a dessert or snack for my child, so that category is helpful to the consumer,” Kennedy said.
The group came up with 18 categories, like desserts, snacks, cereals, beverages, and entrees, sandwiches and main dishes – which is where that frozen pizza would go. They then set nutritional guidelines within each category.
To meet the guidelines, products can't exceed standards for items such as total fat, saturated fat, added sugars or sodium. They also have to have “nutrients to encourage,” such as calcium, fiber and potassium, or “food groups to encourage,” such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy.
Meeting those requirements gets them the check mark. In talking to consumers, researchers learned that shoppers wanted to have the guesswork taken out of figuring out other key nutritional information, like calories and servings. Moving it to the front of the box allows people to make decisions more quickly.
General Mills spokeswoman Heidi Geller said the company felt the Smart Choices program blends several nutritional efforts together, helping people wanting to make sense of their food choices. The labels will likely go on an undetermined number of products, she said, but will include top-selling cereal brand Cheerios and products such as the strawberry flavor of Yoplait light and sweet peas from Green Giant Valley Fresh Steamers.
“We believe that a single credible system that is recognizable and uniform across categories will benefit consumers,” she said.
Coca-Cola said in a statement Friday that it will put calories per serving and number of servings on the front of all its beverages sold in the U.S., saying it was a “powerful tool for education.” The company was likely to implement the Smart Choices program, spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante said, adding that the company has helped develop it.
Kraft said it plans to put the labels on hundreds of its products, including Triscuit crackers, Crystal Light drink mix, Miracle Whip, sugar-free Jell-O, and some 100-calorie snack packs like chewy granola bars.
Other companies involved include Kellogg Co. and ConAgra Foods Inc.
More companies are expected to sign on, said Brad Sperber, with the nonprofit Keystone Center, based in Washington, which coordinated the coalition. Even if a product doesn't meet the requirements now, the coalition hopes companies will strive to earn the label and reformulate the product.
The group also plans to encourage researchers to study the effectiveness of the labels, and see how they affect consumption, Kennedy said.