Don’t Reinvent Food Labels

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A new law is in the works, stirred up by the health conscious, intent on ridding America of a very serious problem: obesity. The Food and Drug Administration has left open a discussion involving a whole new system of labeling requirements for food products. There are a few options as of now for how this new labeling system should operate.

The first idea is a system that requires all food to adhere to new labels summarizing health benefits as well as nutrition, leaving consumers to judge how healthy each product is.

The second idea is a system that requires only FDA-approved “healthy” products to have “health-endorsing” labels.

The third idea requires all products to receive new labels, but endorsing labels only to be used on “healthy” products, dissing labels on deemed “unhealthy” products and other products to get “mixed review” labels.

Basically, very much like movie reviews, it is being suggested that we establish a committee in the FDA to give reviews of food products that they approve or disapprove of.

There are many serious problems with this idea of a new system — primarily, the perceived notion that people even pay attention to food labeling. According to the 2011 report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “between 20 percent and 31 percent of people said they almost always look at figures for total fat, trans-fat and sugar, but only 1 percent were observed actually reading that key data.” Not only is it possible that most people don’t even know what it means for food to contain “trans-fat” or what sugar does, but there is no statistic to support that a new labeling system will be any more effective than the nutrition labels already on all food products, which coincidently are already required by the FDA.

All the information you look for in a food product is already on display for you. You’re interested in low-sodium foods? Look for foods with less than your daily milligram intake of sodium. Don’t want sugars in your diet? Don’t eat carbs. All food items will tell you if it has carbs in it. It’s required.

This begs the question: Why are we interested in a new labeling method at all? We already have one. Then again, you look at the statistic above, and it’s obvious that we’re not using the system already put in place. But then another question arises: Why do we think this new system will work, if the old one isn’t? For some reason we expect everything to be simpler. We want to know everything about a movie, a book, a person or a box of cereal with a snap of a finger. Or, in our generation, a push of a button. Heck, we have an application for all of those.

The reason we want to pay, without tax dollars, a committee of government officials to endorse or blackball all of our food products is because we expect to pay this committee to be more educated about the food we eat than we are. We expect a stranger to know our specific health needs and preferences more than ourselves and make them blatantly bold on the products we buy.

More candidly, we expect to continue to be uneducated about our own health needs because we should be able to trust that stranger holding our tax dollars. That stranger is probably going to endorse whatever company pays them the most to broadcast the perks of their own product and diminish their downsides.

Why is this considered a suitable treatment to America’s health problem? If people knew what trans-fat was, they’d start looking for it on their food labels and avoiding the product. If people knew how much better coconut oil is for them than canola, they’d stop avoiding it because of how much fat they think it has. A lot of people look for low calorie foods, thinking those are healthier. If more people understood that calories is just a unit of measurement for energy and that everyone needs them (and typically a lot of them), they’d be paying attention to how much saturated fat was in the calories they were consuming, not the calorie intake exclusively.

Health is a very subjective term. What is considered to be beneficial to one person’s health is not necessarily considered healthy for anyone else. Someone is going to look for gluten free food because they are allergic, while someone else’s diet relies on gluten because they need more carbs. How do we expect the FDA to know what we are looking for health wise? Are they expecting to endorse one particular product to one particular target audience? Because one product can be health beneficial to many different health necessities. If they were to address all of them on a package, you probably wouldn’t have enough room on the package to even tell the consumer what it was.

There is a sort of compromise to this insistence on more apparent education. You’ve probably seen examples of it already, as some companies are already doing it. You probably notice on Kellog’s cereal, that they have little graphic bars lining the edge of the box, that its sugar content and all the vitamin benefits. Logically, if a company makes a product that is healthy conscious, chances are, they are probably going to want to advertise that fact themselves. No company needs to have their health perks endorsed by the FDA. If people make a product specifically for people with high cholesterol, they’ll probably tell you. It’s in their best interests, and believe it or not, it’s also in yours. Conversely, if a product has no health benefits at all, and can’t manage to broadcast any particular health perks, it pales in competition to healthier counterparts, and will fall out of the market, just based on how companies advertise. This process doesn’t need the FDA; it’s already starting.

It’s a match made in heaven really, people who want a product that adheres to their needs, and a company that wants to meet the specific needs of people with their product. They tend to find each other. We don’t need to pay a matchmaker.

 

Geneviève Hanson is a second-year English major. She can be reached at gmhanson@uci.edu.

 

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