Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Food Labeling and Our Power as Consumers

This semester in "Food, Farms, and Famine" has opened our eyes to many dimensions of food that may have never crossed our minds before. We are no longer aware of just food itself and its nutritional value, but also of the social and environmental implications of its production, marketing, and consumption. Our discussions of the sobering (and sometimes downright grim) issues relating to our current food system have left many of us wondering, "What can be done? What can I do?" To start off, think about how many people are not taking this class, have not seen "Food, Inc.", and can perceive only a nominal difference between fair trade and free trade, organic and non-organic, grass-fed and corn-fed, etc. Information, its dissemination, and consumers' use of that information constitute a very important first step in rethinking and reshaping our food culture. Adi Narayan of Time Magazine recently wrote an article which discusses the politics, marketing strategy, merit (or lack thereof), and effectiveness of food labeling systems. Narayan also includes a list of some of the current labeling systems used to relay nutritional information to the consumer. Narayan sheds light on a very important issue but he deals mostly with labels that signify nutritional value and health benefits. If we want to "build a better label" as the title of the article claims, food labels should include [more] information not just about its relation to nutrition and health, but also about the origins of our food and how it was produced and/or processed.

"Shoppers who paused for an interview in the cereal isle that evening said their choices were guided either by past purchases or front-of-the-box labels," writes Narayan. Front-of-the-box labels. The front of the box is prime real estate for a company to put its best foot forward in terms of advertising its product. Nutritional value and health benefits are fair game as selling points for a product, so naturally, some scientific claims and their meaning get lost in a shroud of flashy graphics, vague wording, and convenient omissions all designed to "confuse and seduce consumers" and distract them from more important information found on the Nutrition Facts label. What makes this slope even more slippery is the fact that the manner in which these claims are presented are unique to the company selling the product; it is all part of a very competitive capitalist game to see which company can put out the most glowing, attractive, and convincing advertisements. Certain types of food labels such as "0 Grams of Trans-Fat!" or "Rich in Anti-Oxidants!" reach a point where they become superficial and trendy and this makes unbiased, objective, and consistent food labeling and its effectiveness as a tool for making better food choices even more difficult to achieve.

The FDA has recently become more stringent in its efforts to improve food labeling systems by putting out a survey asking consumers to comment on "ways to enhance the usefulness to consumers of...information on the principal display panel of food products." Claims about the nutritional value and health benefits of food should not be easily tossed around and manipulated as pawns in a capitalist game and one way in which this can be kept under control is through more rigorous implementation of government control (or some neutral authority) in the matter. Another way in which food labeling systems can be improved is by modifying the actual nature of the information presented to the consumer. The food labels that Narayan discusses deal mostly with nutritional information of the food itself. Nutrition facts are definitely important but in a time where 'healthy and nutritious' vitamin and mineral mixtures can be added to Twinkies, they are no longer sufficient in making smart and conscious food choices. As was proven time and time again over the course of the semester, the relation of food to our well-being is intrinsically tied to its origins, its production, and its social and environmental implications. It seems that foods labeled according to their origins and production process (i.e. grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, organic produce, free trade coffee) satisfy only a small niche market. But nowadays it is these labels [not the nutrition facts] that are marking the key difference between healthy and safe foods and unhealthy and potentially dangerous foods. Doesn't everybody deserve to know about this? Why not break this food 'scene' wide open so everyone can have access to this information?

The origins and production of food constitute a whole separate spectrum of information that would definitely overwhelm the consumer and probably even depress the consumer into complacency and learned helplessness. But this cannot be seen as a negative as is implied by Dr. David Ludwig of Harvard Medical School, "At-a-glance labels assume that the consumer is too ignorant to make an informed decision...the solution should be to offer more, not less information...food choices are too complicated to be reduced to simply green, amber, and red." This also implies that consumers also have a significant responsibility in "building a better label". Only so much information can be presented to consumers; but if they are too lazy to actually heed this information and take it into consideration in their purchases, it is useless. This is why consumers should definitely be more conscious, on all levels, about the foods they buy and eat. This would help them make more health-conscious, environmentally and socially responsible, and overall smarter food choices and ultimately help remedy the flaws in our current food system in the long run.

Narayan, A. (2010, May 2). Building a Better Label. TIME Magazine

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