Food Labelwhores

I was at Trader Joe’s the other day with my roommate, stocking up on our favorite Reduced Guilt Macaroni and Cheese (only 270 calories for cheesy goodness!), when an elderly man eyed us piling a fair number of the frozen meals into our cart. He leaned over to us, confused as to why we seemed to be preparing for some tragic noodle-depraved circumstance.

“Is this better than that?” he asked, pointing first to the pasta in our cart, and then to the full-fat macaroni and cheese he’d been hovering over.

“They’re both good,” we told him, “but the Reduced Guilt one is less than half the fat and lower in calories, and it’s still tasty.” The man raised his eyebrows, and a few moments of deep contemplation, placed a few Reduced Guilt mac and cheeses into his cart.

According to the International Food Information Council Federation, over 68 percent of Americans rely on nutrition labels when selecting their groceries. Many people still overlook the labels and some of those who say they read the facts fail to check in their hurried shopping.

Because of these findings, more companies are placing key nutrition facts on the front of their products.

I’m one of those picky nutrition label people. Not that I’m ridiculously strict about what I eat, but I can’t bring myself to purchase any grocery item without looking at the label. My main concern is typically calories, followed by fat and sugar, so when I noticed that more products were putting those basic bits of information of the front of their packaging, I was thankful for the shortcut.

Companies have been trying to figure out the best way to put nutrition facts on the front of the package. It’s easy to showcase the information if it’s positive, but many products don’t have much to sing about. Some campaigns, such as “Facts Up Front” can often brush over this problem by highlighting the best attributes of products in boxes on the front of packages, distracting from unhealthy aspects. Other campaigns though, such as Walmart’s “Great for You” label, mark only products that held up against strong standards and can actually help buyers.

While having prominent labels makes shopping more efficient for those who already check the facts, I feel like these systems will only work for those willing to do some extra sleuthing. A lot of these labels, such as in the case of “Facts Up Front,” can cause buyers to overlook trans-fat or excess sugar, and the calories listed on the front may only account for a single serving, which can cause problems in cases where the package actually has multiple servings that one might eat alone in a sitting.

I do hope that new labels will help some people become more conscious of what they are consuming, but I feel like there is only so much that companies can do to control health without actually discontinuing a lot of their empty-calorie products. Then again, even if only “Great for You”-approved food existed, overeating would still play a large role in America’s obesity problem.

The man who talked to me at Trader Joe’s didn’t seem to notice the labels on the front of the Reduced Guilt Macaroni and Cheese until my roommate and I pointed it out, and it’s understandable. The regular macaroni looks way more appealing, as the front of the box shows only a heaping serving of cheesy noodles that give off a nostalgic, home-cookin’ vibe. The Reduced Guilt box has labels on the front, telling consumers it has 65 percent less fat, which can alternatively be read as “65 percent less yummy.”

You can cover everything in labels, warn everyone you know about the dangers of an indulgent diet, but in the end, people will still purchase full-fat mac and cheese. And others, like myself, will always be labelwhores.

 

Julia McAlpine is a fourth-year literary journalism and religious studies double major. She can be reached at jmcalpin@uci.edu.