It seems that there is less and less agreement between different political factions in the U.S. However, one area of regulation, that seems to be less objectionable is food labeling. Both parties seem to agree that it is important, and it’s hard to disagree with the idea of making consumers more aware through transparency. However, it’s also quite clear that food labeling is a complete failure when it comes to educating the public in order to change behavior.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama, known as a strong “food labelist”, has promoted food labeling as a grand success, citing the “Nutrition Facts” chart found on every packaged food. Additionally, many cities in the U.S. have adopted new “hygiene” labels for restaurants, which display sanitation grades of foods. And numerous other labels have been either mandated or proposed by lawmakers, such as:
- country of origin labels
- safe-handling labels
- food justice labels
- “activity equivalent” labels
The idea behind food labeling is that it will do social good. The former First Lady has stated publicly that nutrition labeling will “make a big difference for families all across this country” and “help solve the problem of child obesity.” Unfortunately, reality is far different.
The Sad Reality
Food labels have not worked as the social good that they are intended to be. In fact, study after study shows that labels fail to promote even modest dietary improvements. Most notable is the failure of calorie labeling. When fast food chains were forced by law to post calorie counts, the expectation was a decrease in calories consumed and serving sizes. Research shows almost no significant change. A survey of all the evidence concludes “calorie labeling does not have the intended effect of decreasing calorie purchasing or consumption.”
And then there is the Nutrition Data box on packaged food. It is widely believed and claimed by labelists to be successful, since people notice and use these labels to compare food products. Unfortunately, the Nutrition Data labels have not delivered at all. Multiple studies clearly show that the public is eating, on average, at least 400 more calories daily today, than they were 20-30 years ago. And obesity rates have skyrocketed in the U.S.
New Food Labeling 2020
In 2020, new labels will be mandated by the FDA. The image in this article shows the differences between the old label and the new label. The Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods will “reflect new scientific information, including the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease. The new label will make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices. The new label is already appearing on packages even before it is required to be used. Manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales must switch to the new label by January 1, 2020; manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales have until January 1, 2021 to comply. Manufacturers of single-ingredient sugars such as honey and maple syrup and certain cranberry products have until July 1, 2021 to make the changes.” Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label
I do agree that it’s a good idea to try to educate consumers and create better awareness, but I think it’s also important to look at this issue with a critical and intelligent eye. Unfortunately, our lawmakers are simply plowing ahead with new regulations that are highly unlikely to help improve social good. The intentions are clearly good, but the results will likely be poor.
So, what should we focus on instead? Certainly, providing more education is good, but the biggest problem is access to healthy foods. When you look at the areas of our country with the highest rates of obesity, it is clear that there is a significant lack of affordable, healthy foods. In these areas, fast food chains proliferate because the food is cheap. Perhaps, in these areas, social policy should strive to improve access to healthier grocery choices.
And even when it comes to the overall, general public, I am a firm believer that we vote with our wallets. If we stop spending money on crap, and instead, create more demand for really healthy food, such as wild caught fish rather than farm-raised fish, or grass-fed beef rather than industrial meat, or organic produce rather than GMO produce, then eventually, lawmakers are bound to catch on. At least, we hope they will. I strongly urge you to spend your food dollars on healthy food options, at least 80% of the time. Make your dollars count.