Technology

SmartLabel: Changing the Way America Food Shops

I’ve been a dietitian for more than 10 years and during that time I’ve realized that one of our many responsibilities includes answering questions about food in a way that helps clients buy more healthful products. Lately, for many dietitians, it seems that counseling sessions have become a balance between conveying necessary information and responding to questions and concerns about food ingredients. However, a new resource launched by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) may help dietitians assuage client trepidation about food ingredients while saving them time during their sessions. The resource, SmartLabel, is a searchable online database containing product information about foods, household items, and personal care products. Clients can access data in myriad ways, including via the Product Search before they visit a store. “SmartLabel was created for today’s consumers who are looking for an increasing amount of information about the products they use and consume,” says Jim Flannery, senior executive vice president, operations and industry collaboration at GMA. “It brings detailed information beyond what is on packaging and labels right to a consumer’s fingertips.”

The information available to consumers includes ingredient definitions, third-party certifications (such as GMO disclosures), and sourcing practices. For example, someone interested in the soybean origin for Hellman’s Real Mayo can click on “Soybean Oil” on the Ingredients tab to learn that they’re conventionally farmed in Iowa and Ontario. Furthermore, “Companies are already voluntarily disclosing GMOs through SmartLabel,” Flannery says, which many clients likely will view as beneficial.

Although the ability to search products before and during grocery shopping is helpful, currently only about 50 food brands are included. Dietitians counseling clients on using SmartLabel should let them know the database doesn’t yet include everything on their shopping lists. However, GMA estimates SmartLabel will represent about 80% of food, household, and personal care products on the market within five years. According to Bridget Christenson, company spokesperson at General Mills, “We chose to pilot the program across a select number of products to test the technology and gain consumer feedback on their experience before rolling it out more broadly. We plan to roll out SmartLabel on additional products as we gain consumer feedback.” If dietitians or their clients want to know more about a brand not currently included they should contact the manufacturer and request the information. Ultimately, this could lead to more brand participation.

Dietitians can still save time during counseling sessions by referring clients to SmartLabel to learn more about the ingredients in their food. Clients can save time during shopping by looking up product information before they shop and while searching the products since all participating brands are listed on one website. Supermarket dietitians can refer shoppers to the SmartLabel QR code directly on food packages when responding to questions that lack evidence-based support (such as clean label concerns), They also can direct shoppers to the ingredients section of the brand in question to learn more about where the ingredients are sourced and their function in the product. In addition, dietitians can familiarize themselves with this information to better respond to clients’ questions about food sourcing and ingredients.

With increasing consumer concern about food additives, dietitians play an important role in helping clients understand the details of food ingredients and why they’re there. If the number of participating brands grows to reflect the majority of the food supply, dietitians can use SmartLabel to help clients become smart shoppers.

— Jessica Levings, MS, RDN, is a freelance writer and owner of Balanced Pantry, a consulting business helping companies develop and modify food labels, conduct recipe analysis, and create nutrition communications materials. Learn more at www.balancedpantry.com, Twitter @balancedpantry, and Facebook.com/BalancedPantry1.

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