October 3, 2012 by brooksy
The impact of reading mandatory labels is a difficult policy to generalize because so many people are conscious of what they eat, where it comes from, and what’s in it (i.e. everyone in the nutrition department). Conversely, so many people are unaware of what they eat, where it comes from and what’s in it or even what the information means when it is presented to them. Can this work?
I recently read a study that compared the food choices, caloric estimates, and nutrition information influences among Subway and McDonalds diners (5). Subway customers were much more cognizant of their food consumption, caloric intake and nutrition information of the foods. Subway markets itself as a healthy restaurant, so people who ate there had a stronger recall of what they ate and ate less than those at McDonalds.
It seems like this policy will help the ‘healthy’ consumers, but there is likely little effect on the consumer that thinks Cheetos are delicious no matter what you stick on the package.
Even if there are gaps in the data, menu and product labeling has benefits in my opinion. If labeling only affects a small portion of the population, then it’s still worth doing.
Front of package labeling is a voluntary system and companies can refuse Implement it (1). What are the “Facts Up Front” going to do for people who have no context in which to understand the information? It seems like companies are selling rather than educating.
Consumer education is a crucial missing piece in this obesity jigsaw puzzle. People need to know what healthy foods are, understand what calories mean, and thus be able to make conscious decisions about their food choices in order to really address the root of the cause of obesity. I would bet money that a large percent of the population has no idea how many calories are in a 20 oz. bottle of soda. If people don’t understand fundamental nutrition information, then being told by a package of ‘organic oreos’ that it’s healthy is grounds for guiltless consumption of something that’s no different in calories.
A challenge for manufacturers in implementation of food labeling is still being able to sell their product (making profit is the bottom line for most businesses). However, research shows that a large portion of sales of restaurants as well as food products are of the ‘healthier’ options (4). Showing food is healthy actually helps sell it, so making healthier foods and marketing them as such is good for business.
Many companies argue that changing their product labels or menus is expensive, but Hank Cardello, author of Stuffed and member of the Hudson Institute, this is something many companies do on a regular basis anyway. Consensus about ‘healthy foods’ among companies needs to be made (2). This is a Costco-size can of worms in itself. Belief among consumers that this program is important is critical in making it successful (2). How do we get consumers to care if those Costco worms are organic, locally grown, free range, hormone and GMO free? What’s the % DRI of fiber and iron per serving? Who cares? I’ll just eat a gummy worm vitamin with it…
How do we get people to care about what they are eating in the first place? Crap. Where is the intervention on shifting the social norms?
If everyone in the industry is up in arms about lack of evidence to show front-of-package labeling will work, then why don’t we try the traffic light approach? Traffic light labels have been shown to work in significantly improving sales of healthy items (3). Why don’t we try this one, food industry? Collaboration between public health and food industry leaders is critical. Finding an approach that allow manufacturers and restaurants to increase profit while providing healthier options is a win-win, a guaranteed recipe for success, if you will.
4. Cardello, Hank. Stuffed, Harper Collins, 2009.
5. Wansink, Brian. Mindless Eating, Random House, 2006.