This page is designed to provide health care professionals with information on the Smart Choices Program and the nutrition criteria that form its foundation. A manuscript detailing the nutrition criteria, the science behind its development, and the process by which they were established for the program has been submitted to a peer reviewed scientific journal for publication.

For more information, you can view related sources of consensus nutrition science.

Science-Based Symbol

The Smart Choices Program was allowed only on those products that meet specific nutrition criteria derived from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reports from the Institute of Medicine, and other sources of consensus dietary guidance.

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, nutrients to encourage, and food groups to encourage. By developing nutrition criteria for each of these 19 product categories based on consensus dietary guidance, the Smart Choices Program was designed to help guide consumer choices within each of those product categories. To qualify for the program, all foods were required to meet criteria for nutrients to limit; therefore, the presence of nutrients to encourage does not compensate for the presence of nutrients to limit in higher amounts.

The Smart Choices Program was designed to be flexible and adaptable, allowing for revisions to new public policy, dietary guidelines, and emerging consensus science.

Fact-Based Calorie Information

The Smart Choices Program included front-of-pack calorie information. Products that qualified for the Smart Choices Program symbol also displayed calorie information on the front of the package, disclosing the calories per serving and number of servings per container. The goal is to help people stay within their daily calorie needs and make it easier for calorie comparisons, again guiding food choices within product categories. Public policy consistently recommends that people consume a sound diet within an appropriate daily calorie intake to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

What Are the Nutrition Qualifying Criteria?

Following is a general summary of the qualifying criteria and rationale for specific variations.

You may also view the full nutrition criteria for if and how a product would qualify for use of the Smart Choices Program Symbol, as well as more detail on the variations.

  • Nutrients to Limit: These are nutrients that Americans need to eat less of in their diet for better health.
Nutrients to Limit – General Benchmarks
Total Fat ≤ 35 % of calories
Saturated Fat < 10 % of calories
Trans Fat 0 g (labeled)
Cholesterol ≤ 60 mg per serving
Added Sugars ≤ 25 % of total calories
Sodium ≤ 480 mg per serving
  • Nutrients to Encourage: These are the “nutrients of concern,” that is nutrients lacking in the diet, as identified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Nutrients to Encourage Calcium, Potassium, Fiber, Magnesium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin E A food must offer ≥10% Daily Value (a “good source”) of at least one of these nutrients
  • Food Groups to Encourage: These are groups of foods, rather than individual nutrients, that are recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Food Groups to Encourage Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains, Fat-Free/Low-Fat Milk Products A food must provide at least ½ of a serving of one of these food groups

Product Categories

The Smart Choices Program included 19 product categories that must meet the general qualifying criteria of nutrients to limit and nutrients or food groups to encourage. These were determined by the coalition by looking closely at the types of foods in the marketplace today, how they are consumed, how choices are made in the store, and how they are categorized into food groups with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Code of Federal Regulations also was consulted. Each category was then evaluated to fine tune the criteria so that it was in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other sources of nutrition science and authoritative guidance.
Product Category Qualifying Criteria
Fruits and Vegetables (with no additives) Automatically qualify
Fruits and Vegetables (with additives), 100% Juice Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Breads, Grains, Pasta Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Cereals Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Meat, Fish, Poultry Nutrients to limit only
Meat Alternatives Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Seeds, Nuts, Nut Butters Nutrients to limit only
Cheeses and Cheese Substitutes Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Milk, Dairy Products, and Dairy Substitutes (including Soy Beverages) Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Fats, Oils, Spreads (including Butter) Nutrients to limit only
Soups, Meal Sauces, and Mixed Side Dishes Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Entrees, Sandwiches, Main Dishes, and Meal Replacements Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Meals Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient to encourage as well as 1.5 servings from food group to encourage
Sauces, Dressing and Condiments Nutrients to limit and ≥ 1 nutrient or food group to encourage
Snack Foods and Sweets Nutrients to limit and at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
Desserts Nutrients to limit and ≥ 1 nutrient or food group to encourage
Beverages Nutrients to limit applies to all beverages, then:
if ≤ 20 calories/serving: nutrients to limit only
if ≤ 40 calories/serving: at least one nutrient or food group to encourage
if ≤ 60 calories/serving: at least one nutrient and food group to encourage
(4 oz juice = 1 food group)
Water (plain and carbonated) Automatically qualify
Chewing Gum Nutrients to limit and "sugar-free"

Calorie Criteria for the Smart Choices Program

The coalition needed to evaluate the standards for calories. Currently there is no authoritative, scientific standard for calorie threshold. Based on 2,000 calorie diet, calorie levels were set for meals, sauces, snacks, desserts, and beverages.

A calorie threshold was determined not applicable for fruits and vegetables (with additives), 100% juices, breads, grains, pasta, cereals, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, meat alternatives, seeds, nuts, milk/dairy, cheeses, fats, oils, soups, and sauces.

Food-Specific Variations

For a few select foods and beverages within a particular category, there were food-specific variations from the general benchmarks that were established.

The coalition identified the following rationales for identifying different nutrition standards for specific foods and beverages.
Total Fat
Seeds, nuts, nut butters; fats, oils, spreads; sauces, dressings, condiments Quality of the fat, rather than amount, was determined to be the best measure
Meat, fish, poultry USDA definition of “extra lean”
Fatty fish DHA/EPA (omega 3 fats) may exceed 10 g total fat (500 mg DHA/EPA per 3 oz serving)
Fruits and vegetables (with additives), 100% juices, cheeses, cheese substitutes, milk, dairy products, and dairy substitutes (including soy beverages) ≤ 3 g fat
Soups, meal sauces, mixed side dishes, sauces, snack foods, sweets, desserts Products ≤ 100 calories ≤ 3 g fat
Chewing Gum 0g

The coalition's objective was to set standards that include those oils and foods that have a balance of fatty acids consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, while excluding those that are not. Notably, fatty fish were given a slightly different set of criteria in order to allow for and encourage consumption of healthy fats, including DHA and EPA.
Saturated Fat
Seeds, nuts, nut butters; fats, oils, spreads; sauces, dressings, condiments ≤ 28% of total fat to encourage “good fats” (aligned with Dietary Guidelines for Americans)
Meat, fish, poultry USDA definition of “extra lean”
Cheeses, cheese substitutes, milk, dairy products, and dairy substitutes ≤ 2 g saturated fat, based on 1% low-fat dairy product
Fruits and vegetables (with additives), 100% juices, beverages ≤ 1 g
Snack foods, sweets, desserts Products with less than 100 calories ≤ 1 g saturated fat
Beverages ≤ 1 g saturated fat
Chewing Gum 0g

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans limit saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of total calories. The ratio of the dietary saturated fat guideline to the total fat guideline can be used to establish a fat quality index (10% saturated fat/35% total fat = 28% of fat as saturated fat). In turn, this index was used to help set the criteria for the Smart Choices Program.
Trans Fat

While there is currently no FDA standard, it is recommended that trans fat intake be kept as low as possible. Consistent with FDA labeling guidelines, the Smart Choices Program excluded naturally occurring trans fats sometimes found in cheeses, milk, dairy, meat, fish, and poultry.
Cholesterol
Meat, fish, poultry ≤ 95 mg per RACC
Meals ≤ 90 mg per serving
Sauces, dressings, condiments ≤ 30 mg per serving

For cholesterol, the Smart Choices Program is consistent with the FDA standard for "healthy" and the USDA standard for "extra lean" in the case of meat, fish, and poultry.
Sodium
Cereal ≤ 240 mg for less than 43 g serving size
≤ 290 mg for 43 g or greater serving size
Fruits and vegetables (with additives), 100% juices, breads, grains, pasta, flour, seeds, nuts, nut butters, sauces, dressings, condiments, snack foods, sweets, desserts, cheeses and cheese substitutes, milk, dairy products, and dairy substitutes (including soy beverages) ≤ 240 mg per serving
Cheeses, milk, and dairy products ≤ 240 mg per serving
Meat, fish, poultry ≤ 140 mg if single raw ingredient
Fats, oils, spreads, beverages ≤ 140 mg per serving
Beverages ≤ 140 mg per serving
Entrees, sandwiches, main dishes, meals ≤ 600 mg per serving

Within the FDA "healthy" criteria, it is recognized that some food and food categories may require different standards for sodium levels. In addition to the FDA "healthy" criteria for sodium, the coalition also reviewed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intake report for water, potassium, sodium, chloride, and sulfate when considering sodium levels.
Added Sugars
Fruits and vegetables (with additives), 100% juices ≤ 8 calories (or 0 g for 100% juice)
Desserts

Products ≤ 100 calories ≤ 6 g
Products ≤ 20 calories qualify by meeting criteria for nutrients to limit only
Frozen dairy desserts ≤ 12 g

Cereals ≤ 12 g per serving
Milk, dairy products, and dairy substitutes (including soy beverages) ≤ 12 g per cup
Beverages Calories set as limiting factor
(not added sugars)
Soups, meal sauces, mixed side dishes, sauces, dressings, condiments, snack foods, sweets, desserts Products ≤ 100
calories ≤ 6 g

Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognizes the importance of limiting added sugars, there is no FDA standard for this component. The Dietary Guidelines also pointed out that, in some cases, small amounts of sugars added to nutrient-dense foods, such as breakfast cereals and reduced-fat milk products, may increase a person's intake of such foods by enhancing the palatability of these products, thus improving nutrient intake without contributing excessive calories. A consensus-based approach was used to arrive at the criteria for added sugars; however, this criteria will be re-evaluated as new guidance and consensus science emerges.

When considered on a meal basis:

  • The World Health Organization (2003) allows for 10% of calories from "added sugars," which based on a 2,000 calorie diet is 200 calories/day
  • Based on four eating occasions per day (200 calories/4 eating occasions = 50 calories/eating occasion)
  • Grams per eating occasion equate to 50 calories/4 = 12.5 g, rounded to 12 g