Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The politics of food labels

Accidental Hedonist called my attention to this latest article (New York Times) on the topic of nutrition-oriented labelling for packaged foods.

The Smart Choices Program lets food manufacturers buy into their program for a fee in exchange for having a recognized health-conscious label to stick on any of the products that happen to meet the program's nutrition requirements.

Of course, as the Times article points out, the program has numerous flaws, not first of which is the commonly understood fact that most of the healthiest products in most supermarkets are those that barely even have any packaging. But more to the point, the article explores some of the dubious products to be granted inclusion in the program, such as sugary cereals like Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms. That's the one with the marshmallows.

How do backers of the program defend the inclusion of these items?
[Dr. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board] said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.

“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.
This raises a number of red flags...

(A) If you're "trying to think about healthy eating for your kids" and the best ideas you can come up with are Froot Loops and doughnuts, then you're probably not ready for parenthood. At the very least, you're not thinking hard enough.

(B) Does this mean I can safely assume that anything healthier than a doughnut qualifies as "nutritious"? It doesn't seem like they've set the bar very high for themselves here. Is it okay if I give my kids cotton candy for breakfast? It's lower in fat than a doughnut.

(C) How does Dr. Kennedy think the labelling will help a consumer in this situation? Is it an obvious choice because the Froot Loops have a "Smart Choices" label, while the doughnuts do not? Does this mean the program's aim is to convince consumers that all products lacking the "Smart Choices" label are inherently less nutritious than those that do bear it? Since there are only 10 food manufacturers participating in the program, it seems impossible for them to know what their products are being compared against. Yes, it could be doughnuts. But it could also be a banana or yogurt.

So what is Smart Choices? It's a glorified marketing campaign, basically. Its limited participation guarantees that most of the healthiest products available to consumers will be ignored and it ignores foods' undesirable traits in favor of more marketable ones. As consumers, we all lose.

More importantly, this story speaks to the general issue of health-oriented packaging claims. We may be picking on Smart Choices here, but the same problems apply to almost any product that makes generalized health claims on its packaging. Maybe some of this time, effort, and money should be put into actually educating consumers, rather than just telling them things after they arrive at the store.


LISA said...

yeah, i would never eat a doughnut for breakfast

*shifty eyes*

Melodie said...

We went to the Costco in Taipei to see if they had anything interesting to buy that we can't normally find in our supermarket. We came across all these American products like Kirkland crackers and Cheerios. Someone had to blacken out all the "USDA Organic" labels and "Helps lower cholesterol"off the packaging. Apparently, by Taiwanese standards, these products are not organic or can make such health claims. Very interesting...