Food labels in the United States are in drastic need of an update. These federally mandated labels show a lot of information; some of it is helpful to consumers, and some it is confusing or misleading. But what is more telling than what is on labels is what isn’t shown. The combination of too much or overly confusing information, coupled with a lack of complete information is, in part, responsible for many misperceptions about healthy diets. The reality is that the labeling laws enforced by the Food and Drug Administration are inadequately informing the American consumer about what they are eating.
What is Shown:
When you look at the back of a box of food taken from a grocery store shelf, what do you see? Most likely you’ll see a list of ingredients, a Nutrition Facts label, and perhaps the seal of approval from some agency or organization touting the benefits of consuming the product in your hands.
Unfortunately, simply going by the ingredient and nutrient lists on any particular food label will not give the average consumer enough actionable information to affect their health one way or the other. It can be easily argued that consuming too much sugar, fat, or salt will lead to adverse health consequences down the road for the majority of the population, but long term health is a product of much more than nutrient intake. Lifestyle, including exercise, stress levels, and genetic predisposition to health problems, are also responsible for long term health consequences. Many of these cannot be affected by diet.
Then there are the labels themselves. The standardized Nutrition Facts labels are notoriously difficult to decipher. The FDA has explanatory pages on its website showing how to interpret these labels, including what terms like "serving size" mean and what the different sections of the label represent. The ingredients listed on processed foods are often indecipherable, containing ingredients that require a background in chemistry to understand. While recent efforts have looked at redesigning Nutrition Facts labeling, the food industry has pushed back, and the labels remain murky.
Another item often found on food packages are The Heart Healthy, Organic and Other Certification badges. Unfortunately, these are mostly marketing tools which are often doled out at costs that are prohibitive to all but the largest of agribusinesses. The claims of "heart healthy" and organic also belie the complex relationship between nutrient intake, body chemistry, environment, and lifestyle that combine to have the greatest influence on health. Moreover, such labels often appear on products that are loaded with other ingredients that most would have trouble calling healthy. The Fruit Loops healthy labeling debacle a few years ago comes immediately to mind.
What Isn’t Shown:
What isn’t shown on food labels is the most critical reason why food label laws need an update. Though most companies make an effort to list known allergens that may be present in their products, the base ingredients of processed foods are often represented in arcane terms that mask their true origin. For example, sugar is often labeled as high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, glucose, or any one of a dozen other names. Corn products may come labeled as dextrose (a form of sugar), alpha tocopherols, treacle, ethylene … the list goes on and on. And does anyone remember the "pink slime" uproar?
The next question to ask is, since so many products contain ingredients that are derived from corn — has that corn come from genetically modified feedstocks? The jury is still out on the health benefits (or detriments) of consuming such products over the long term, but what is well documented are the other effects of GMO crops, such as increased reliance on petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides to maintain monocultures against ever more persistent pests and diseases. Given the near ubiquity of GMO corn in the food system, avoiding GMO crops is difficult even for the most conscious of consumers, especially given the defeat of Proposition 37 in California last year.
Food labels as they currently exist are rapidly coming to the end of their usefulness and need to be redesigned to better reflect the complex relationship between diet and health. They are still needed to inform consumers about what is in the products that they are purchasing. But newer labels, ones that contain immediately relevant information, clearly displayed, and without the taint of corporate bias are needed to insure that consumers can quickly and easily make healthy choices.
Check out my previous PolicyMic article about food labeling and why there should be more and clearer labeling.