Kraft Foods, Unilever, General Mills and ConAgra have already committed to the "Smart Choices" logo, while Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Kellogg and Wal-Mart all helped to develop the standard but have not officially adopted it yet.
Under the new program, products can qualify for the logo providing they have limited calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium and contain one of the nutrients most Americans don't get enough of, such as calcium, fiber, or Vitamin A. To qualify, a product must also display its calories-per-serving and servings-per-container label on the front of the package.
Coca-Cola will take things a step further by displaying calories per serving and servings per container on the front of all U.S. packaging by 2009, regardless of whether the products would earn the "Smart Choices" logo.
As disparate "healthy" front-of-pack labeling systems proliferate, the marks have started to lose their power as consumers have grown increasingly confused. "How can you tell the difference between one symbol based on fat and another based on calories?" said Phil Lempert, who writes SupermarketGuru.com. "Consumers over the past year or two have ignored them."
That has meant that many marketers are eating their investments in healthy labeling, he added, and so a standardized effort is so critical. He pointed to Hannaford Supermarkets' "Guiding Stars" program, which evaluates nutritional content of nearly every product in the store, and has seen sales jump.
"Eventually there needs to be just one for it to be effective," he said. "What we learned from 'Guiding Stars' is that it can impact sales dramatically." He said that as long as Smart Choices commits to educational advertising, it should be successful. To start, the program, which will likely be run by a nonprofit group, will hire an agency to do an educational campaign. However, individually the marketers will be doing the bulk of the creative work.
Smart Choice's emphasis on calories underscores a trend gathering steam from retail to government. New York City has mandated calorie displays at chains, and California is following suit. While the effect on restaurants remains unknown, in Hannaford's case, sales for products with stars outpace their starless counterparts by one-and-a-half to five times.
Maybe that's because fewer consumers are bothering to read full nutrition panels, if they're satisfied with the information on the front.
Some package-food companies have seen similar success with proprietary "healthy" logos. Kraft has said that products with its "Sensible Solutions" logo post as much as twice the sales growth as the rest of its portfolio. Unilever's Doug Balentine, director-nutrition sciences at the marketer, said that sales of products bearing its "Eat Smart" and "Drink Smart" logos also grow at a faster rate. Kraft and Unilever have said they will replace their existing programs and PepsiCo said that it will determine the fate of its "Smart Spot" program after it decides whether to participate in the new program.