In a fresh bid to show they're serious about rising obesity, US food manufacturers have joined forces to launch the Smart Choices Program, an industry-wide initiative to promote healthy eating through product labelling. The move has been broadly welcomed although the jury is out on which labels will be the most effective tool in getting the US healthy. Dean Best reports.

On one key issue at least, US food makers have decided that co-operation is vital.

Some of the industry's biggest companies - and rivals - including General Mills, Kraft Foods and Unilever have joined forces on the thorny issue of nutrition labelling.

How consumers are told about the contents of the food they eat has been a subject of fierce debate in the UK for some time and the issue has been growing in importance across the pond.

In a bid to tackle rising obesity and, let's face it, tap into growing demand Stateside for "healthier" products, US food manufacturers have in recent years launched a series of individual initiatives to provide more nutritional information to consumers. Kraft has had its 'Sensible Solutions' programme, designed to help shoppers "easily identify better-for-you foods". Unilever has sold products bearing an 'Eat Smart' logo.

And retailers have got in on the act, too, with Delhaize Group's US businesses Hannaford and Food Lion running a 'Guiding Stars' initiative, where products on sale in-store are given one, two or three stars on their price tags depending on whether they meet fixed nutritional guidelines.

However, as the number of such schemes in the marketplace increases, so does confusion among consumers. And with consumer confusion comes the threat of consumer disinterest, a dangerous notion for food manufacturers as, some industry watchers argue, US regulators begin to study what industry is doing to help tackle obesity ever more closely.

Against that backdrop, the US food industry's titans, alongside academics, nutritionists and public health organisations, have spent the best part of two years developing an industry-wide scheme that it is hoped will provide greater clarity for consumers and provide an effective tool in getting shoppers to, as one executive close to the scheme says, "build a healthy diet".

The initiative, dubbed the Smart Choices Program, will measure products against a set of nutritional criteria, including limits on ingredients like saturated fat and salt, as well as the amount of "nutrients to encourage", including calcium, potassium and fibre. Products that qualify will carry the Smart Choices symbol on packages, which will also carry information about the number of calories per serving and number of servings per container.

The Smart Choices logo is set to roll out in the middle of next year and signatories to the initiative are confident that it will help improve the health of US consumers. "We're really proud of the outcome," Douglas Balentine, Unilever's director of nutrition sciences in the Americas, tell just-food. "I think it will give consumers a simple way to make better food choices and a better diet."

Not only are participants looking to provide more information on the nutritional content of products currently on sale but they believe the programme is further evidence of their commitment to invest more money on making their existing products healthier.

"One of the fundamental objectives of the programme is to provide incentives for manufacturers to reformulate their existing products and innovate [to create] new ones," insists Brad Sperber, director of the health and social policy practice area of The Keystone Center, the advisory group behind Smart Choices.

As you'd expect, consumer groups have taken a keen interest in the initiative. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the major consumer pressure groups in the US, has given a broad welcome to the Smart Choices initiative. Executive director Mike Jacobson believes food manufacturers will see the business interest in having the Smart Choices symbol emblazoned on their products. "It should encourage companies to make at least marginal improvements in their products to go from just below the standard to meeting the standard, so that's good," Jacobson says. "It will also serve as an incentive for companies to come up with new products. They'll certainly try and get the Smart Choices symbol."

Nevertheless, Jacobson points out that, for all the consensus among the major food manufacturers, there are still other labelling schemes in use. He believes that labelling systems that provide information on the nutritional content of all foods and "not just the better-for-you foods" will be more beneficial to consumers as they weigh up how to follow a balanced diet. And the impetus to decide which labelling system is most effective, Jacobson says, should come from Congress.

"The Smart Choices system is far better than nothing but it is unclear how it compares to the effectiveness of other approaches," Jacobson says. "I think that having a symbol - a number, colour, a star, whatever - on every food is more useful to consumers than only having it on so-called better-for-you foods. But, there has not been any study comparing a variety of systems. That's why we've been urging Congress to fund the Institute of Medicine to evaluate various approaches and see which is most effective at getting consumers to choose the healthiest foods. That's the real test."

He adds: "I don't care which system it is but I think we need some evidence that one is significantly better than another. If it turns out that the better-for-you is just as good as something where there's a symbol on every food, fine. But let's have some research."

Naturally, over at Hannaford, the supermarket chain believes its Guiding Stars scheme offers consumers the best guidance. "We support all of the efforts to give consumers more information but we think the strength of Guiding Stars is that it goes completely across the store," Hannaford's Michael Norton tells just-food. "If consumers don't see a star, it means in almost all circumstances that it doesn't have enough value as one next to it on the shelf that does have a star. It calls out the most relevant information and gives consumers a reference point they are familiar with."

Unilever's Balentine says it is difficult to make comparisons between different systems, including Smart Choices and Guiding Stars. "Those programmes are not on-pack programmes; they are programmes that appear along the price label affixed to a shelf," he says.

One thing this is not fixed is the whole debate around nutritional labelling. In under two years time, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will be released, which will no doubt prompt further revisions to the labelling schemes live in the market. By that stage, Congress, or indeed the US Food and Drug Administration, may have become more proactive in the area and we will certainly know more about the impact that Smart Choices would have had on consumer behaviour in the US.