Froot Loops a Healthy Choice? Riiiight.

If you still have any lingering faith in the good intentions of the processed-food industry, this article from yesterday’s New York Times should set you straight: “For Your Health, Froot Loops.” The story details an industry-backed label called “Smart Choices” whose purpose is to distinguish packaged foods that are more healthful than others. Unfortunately the rules are loosely enough written that foods eligible for the label include Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies.

Naturally, the article quotes program spokespeople who defend the designations. The president of the Smart Choices board is quoted in defense of Froot Loops:

 She said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.
“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

Baloney. (Also not an ideal choice.) It’s true that cereal, even one that’s 41 percent sugar, is probably a better choice than a doughnut. But Froot Loops is not sitting next to the doughnuts in most supermarkets, though in the interests of full disclosure perhaps it ought to be; it’s in the cereal aisle, alongside Grape-Nuts and Kashi Go Lean and instant oatmeal and other far superior choices.

More objective observers, such as spokespeople for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle, aren’t buying it either. Nestle remarks, “The object of this is to make highly processed foods appear as healthful as unprocessed foods, which they are not.”

She’s partly right. The object is also to appear to pay heed to consumers’ concerns about nutritional quality while also scrupulously avoiding any admission that some foods just aren’t that good for you. A label that dubs everything a smart choice is meaningless in a marketplace full of a wide range of offerings. The processed food industry is not quite straightforward enough to point to any foods and say “It’s not a healthy choice, but you can probably eat it occasionally without doing too much harm.”

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