It took the grocer's four dietitians more than a year to develop the criteria for the 29 food categories. The green stickers debuted earlier this year.
"Coming up with this criteria was complicated for us, and we're professionals," says dietitian Laura Holtrop Kohl, on a recent tour of the family-owned chain's Midvale store. "Labels are confusing."
The tags are reserved for packaged foods that maximize fruits, vegetables and whole grains and minimize saturated fats, sodium and added sugars. To get the seal of approval, they must also forgo other "questionable" ingredients like artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils.
Shoppers won't find the tags in the produce aisle only because every item would carry the label. Nor are they found on junk food like candy, chips or soda. "They can be part of a healthy lifestyle but we're not going to encourage people to eat ice cream," Holtrop Kohl says.
The new labeling system comes as the nation begins to debate an overhaul to nutrition labels for the first time in 20 years. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed changing nutrition panels to include the amount of added sugar to each product (to distinguish them from natural sugars found in fruits and milk), to change serving sizes to better reflect what people actually eat or drink and to emphasize total calories.
Last spring, Smith's Food & Drug introduced the Simple Truth and Simple Organic Truth private label brands, which don't contain the 101 artificial preservatives and other ingredients that customers say they don't want including artificial colors and flavors, trans fatty acids and nitrates. The full list is available at http://www.simpletruth.com/about-simple-truth/101-free/.
Plus the new brand's meat, chicken and eggs don't contain antibiotics, hormones or artificial ingredients and are fed an all-vegetarian diet.
The Smith's brands cover 250 items in 40 food categories.
While Harmons' recommendations are based on the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines, choosing the healthiest options can be more art than science. Ingredients that some groups warn against, like the preservative EDTA that the food-grading app Fooducate says to avoid, isn't considered questionable by Harmons. (Smith's Simple Truth brand doesn't include EDTA.)
And some products that get the American Heart Association's heart check mark don't make Harmons' cut like Campbell's Healthy Request spicy vegetable chili, because it has what Harmons deems too much sodium.
But the labels are meant to cut through the powerful marketing behind processed food.
During the tour, Holtrop Kohl walked to the cereal aisle, where very few of the breakfast foods have 10 percent whole grain and no more than 6 grams of sugar (plain Shredded Wheat and plain oatmeal, yes; Froot Loops, no). She examined the nutrition panel on a box of Kashi-brand Stawberry Fields cereal that touts its "whole grain goodness" and "naturally sweet strawberries."
"It doesn't say whole-grain wheat and has 11 grams of sugar. That's a lot. But everyone picks up Kashi and thinks, 'Oh, it's Kashi. It's good.' "
She said the grocer hasn't received pushback from vendors who don't get the seal of approval. Instead, some are trying to change their recipes to get the green sticker. Anecdotally, store employees have noticed that Dietitians Choice products seem to be selling more quickly; the chain is analyzing a survey of shoppers to see if the label has changed their shopping, and it plans to analyze sales figures.
Recently shopping at the Brickyard Harmons, Thana Harding didn't know about the new label until it was pointed out to her. She said she planned to use it to guide her choices from now on. "I like healthy foods. Anything that brings attention to it is helpful," she said.
Dietitians Choice tips
Here is a smattering of categories and brands as analyzed under the Harmons label program.
The big brands like Jif don't make the cut they contain trans or hydrogenated oils and too much sugar. Time to try almond and sunflower butters, though peanut lovers will still find a spread for them, by sticking with the jars that simply contain peanuts and a little salt. Happily, a butter made with nuts and chocolate, called Nuttz, gets the green sticker, too.
Slim pickings here. Just Applegate's organic roast beef gets a Dietitians Choice label. Even the rest of that brand's meat slices were skipped over, despite the labels promising that the animals within were raised on organic grains, because of too much sodium. Sorry, bacon and bologna lovers. Those are a no-go.
There are a dizzying array of options. In general, plain yogurts are OK, and even some with added fruit get the nod. Not so for the overly sweet, like pineapple-coconut or ones with caramelized almond toppings.
You'll have to hunt to find meals that fit the low-fat and low-salt criteria and include whole grains. Walk past the pizza and meat pies and even the so-called healthy meals like Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine, except for the latter brand's new Honestly Good off shoot, which includes whole-grain pasta and sauce on the side.
Grain side dishes
You're going to have to be willing to experiment if white rice (never mind Hamburger Helper) is your idea of a suitable side dish. Branch out and try black and wild rices, millet, quinoa and pearled farro.
Ever considered going vegetarian or vegan? The green stickers will point you this way, since corn dogs and brats are out. But nearly all the brands of bean burgers, soy-based bacon and "chik'n" are in.
You must know by now that Cheetos and Chex Mix are barred. So are Wheat Thins and microwave popcorn. But you can stock up on Triscuits, air pop your own corn kernels, eat nonsweetened dried fruit (prunes, anyone?) and try energy bars made of a handful of ingredients, all recognizable as food.