They call them smart choices

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"Why are the missiles called peace keepers, when they're aimed to kill?"

You probably recognize the Tracy Chapman lyric, from her song "Why?" and it arises in my mind this morning in response to the announcement by Kraft Foods that it will use the Smart Choices nutrition guidelines to determine which foods it will advertise to 6- to 11-year-olds.

On the face of it, the move suggests vision and leadership, and perhaps those are accurate impressions. Really, they could be — look at Wal Mart, which has legitimately gone from corporate scourge to corporate not-bad guy. But no one alive in today's world should accept anything — except my pearls, of course — without looking a little further, and these are some of the points apparent:

* Just because they called it the Smart Choices program, doesn't mean they're smart choices. You know how they say that one should never get in an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel? I'd add to that axiom to say, Never listen blithely to those who spend tens of millions of dollars to shape what they say.

* Smart Choices was created, in part, by ... Kraft Foods! Certainly, the program's criteria require nothing that Kraft Foods couldn't swallow. Agreeing to follow your own paradigm — it's not unlike setting up your own country, writing the constitution, and then pledging to follow it. Huzzah.

* The commitment is to use their guidelines in advertising to 6- to 11-year-olds. But what about those older, and especially to those younger? Here's the lead to a document from the American Psychological Association:

Research shows that children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased. This can lead to unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by today’s youth obesity epidemic. For these reasons, a task force of the American Psychological Association (APA) is recommending that advertising targeting children under the age of eight be restricted.

(It's good to acknowledge that the APA is itself a large organization not without its own oxen to gore, but my assumption is that they are less commercially driven, and therefore less likely to seek to mislead. I'll also concede that this statement addresses only TV ads, but I'm cavalierly extending it to all advertising. Make your own judgement. Anyway, back to the age range...)

* While claiming milestones, the announcement is mum about how it will advertise to most of the least-discerning group. My assumption is that the ability to discern increases with age, and that by age 6, many nutritional tendencies are set. Even in a far less sophisticated age of advertising, I know I was already an abnormal eater by that age.

* Smart Choices is a voluntary program. A primary reason to impose your own voluntary "safeguards" is to forestall actions that might not be voluntary. Please point out for me all the societal safety strictures that have been left voluntary, because "folks'll do the right thing."

* So what are these standards, anyway? Here's an excerpt from a Smart Choices page:

Specific qualifying criteria were developed for 19 different product categories, such as beverages, cereals, meats, dairy, and snacks, based on the presence of nutrients to limit (e.g., fats and added sugars), nutrients to encourage (e.g., calcium and potassium), and food groups to encourage (e.g., fruits and vegetables, whole grains).

On its face, not too bad. But the little piece of evil (yes, a strong word, but I considered it carefully) is the word I bolded. According to my dictionary, a nutrient is "a substance the provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life," which makes the "added sugar" in that sentence complete crap. No food has essential added sugar. They could have used a neutral word like "substance," but they chose differently. Remember, these people put millions into saying exactly what they want conveyed.

* The issue here isn't just wordplay, either:

No more than 25 percent from added sugar? Alert the frickin' media. Same for the fat "restriction" of no more than 35 percent of calories. I guess that puts the kibosh on the Suet Supreme.

Meanwhile, gander at the "nutrients to encourage," which is to say, "nutrients." To qualify, a food must provide at least 10 percent of one of them. That means you'd have to eat 10 servings to get all you'd need. Of one of the nutrients. Doesn't seem very healthful to me.

I'm not saying that Kraft, or any of the other food superconglomerates, never makes a healthful food. I'm sure they do. But let's stay clear here: Their missions are to make profits, not to ensure our health. If they can do both, I'm sure they won't object. But if they have to choose, which one do you think they're going to go for? The money, of course — it's what corporations do. Voluntarily.

Corporations, generally, are not agents of public welfare. To the extent that they are, it is because we have influenced them, not only through the imposition of involuntary regulation, but even more so through our making smart commercial decisions in the face of billions of dollars spent to influence us to do otherwise.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
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