October 25 2012

Nutrition Labeling Efforts Return

Julie Gunlock

A few years ago, the food nannies started complaining that the reason people were getting so fat was because they simply didn't have enough nutrition information. Nevermind that this information (those white boxes with a lot of numbers and big words on the back of the box) is already required by federal law to be placed on the back of every food package. Nevermind that you'd have to be (ok, I don't want to get into Coulter territory here), in a coma (please no hate mail from comatosed snackers, please!) to understand this information. Nevermind that nearly every major food manufacturer is already voluntarily doing some form of front of the package labeling (the food nannies naturally turn their nose up at the word voluntary; they want government regulations or nothing!).

Now, food nanny besties--Marion Nestle and Mark Bittman--are at it again, pushing for more nonsensical food labeling--labeling the nonpartisan Congressional Accountability Office predicts will be confusing to consumers. And I agree with the GAO. Just take a look at Nestle's own widely-read blog Food Politics where she recently posted a few examples of food labeling. Geese! It'll make you dream of the days of those simple nutrition boxes on the back of the packages.

But that's how it works with food nannies, government regulators and easily led public health officials. They are wedded to the idea that we're not giving consumers enough information. Really?  Not enough information?  How about turning on your television; it's literally hard to skim through the channels without seeing a half-dozen weight loss shows, diet cooking shows, or infomercials on how to lose weight and eat right. Talk show hosts dedicate hours to the topic; heck, there's even a primetime network show dedicated to losing weight.

What Bittman and Nestle have trouble with (but to which they'll never admit) is choice, not information. They hate that people are free to make choices for themselves and the unfortunate reality is that some people will make poor choices.

For example, last week, I was in the check-out lane at my local grocery store. My cart was filled with a variety of items; mostly vegetables, lean meat and grains. I try to cook every evening for my family and we eat healthy, whole food (and we occasionally eat Kraft mac-n-cheese and frozen pizza because I'm tired and normal and my kids like those things!).  In front of me was a nurse. I could see her badge and it said RN after her name and the department where she worked. Her groceries consisted entirely of pre-packaged frozen meals, full-sugar beverages, high-fat desserts from the store's bakery and frozen pizzas, tater tots, and some sort of family-sized lasagna dish. There wasn't a fresh fruit or vegetables in site; save a plastic, lime-shaped container of pre-squeezed lime juice. It made me queasy just looking at it but what really hit me was the fact that this woman was a nurse--a women who has a degree in human health. This is a woman who no doubt sees obese patients and she's likely required to talk to these patients about their weight and overall health. 

Who knows, maybe this woman's 13-year-old boy was having a slumber party and she was stocking up on party food (the lemon juice to be used for her well-deserved gin and tonic) but there's a lesson to be learned here. Information does not guarantee good behavior. Nor does sticking information on the front of a package guarantee consumers will heed the data.  People who are interested in their health will turn the package over. They will take a moment to read the information in the nutrition box and they will weigh the product's value in their own diets.

And some won't. And that's life.

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