In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times Mark Bittman dreams about an improved front-of-package food label. “Right now, the labels required on food give us loads of information, much of it useful. What they don’t do is tell us whether something is really beneficial, in every sense of the word,” he writes.
What Bittman proposes is an upgraded traffic light model (green: great choice, yellow: eat sometimes, red: eat sparingly or never), but his fantasy label takes into consideration not only dietary guidelines, but includes also grades for the way each particular food affects the earth, the farm workers, animals and the air we breathe.
Bittman’s proposed label has a 15-point scoring scale. The score is divided to 3 categories, and a food can score up to 5 points in each (see illustrations and examples here):
Nutrition: things such as trans-fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamins and fiber affect this score
Foodness: assesses whether the food is real, or so processed it can hardly be called food
Welfare: scores how well the animals, factory and farm workers, the land, waterways and air are treated.
How realistic is the Bittman label?
The Institute of Medicine recommended in its 2011 report a single, standardized front of package symbol system that can be easily understood and that would appear on every product.
It's not easy: Getting food producers to agree on front-of-package guidance, guidance that would label many of their foods ‘red’, is a huge undertaking.
But adding a welfare key is a wild dream. Bittman admits it’s the trickiest part, and I think the problem isn’t just a logistical and resource one. Measuring carbon footprint is hard and expensive, and assessing pesticide and herbicide’s pollution of water and air is even harder, but trying to get to an agreement about what animal welfare standards should be is impossible. It is a personal-view kind of question, with moral, religious and subjective subtexts, and I think the Republicans and Democrats will unite on the role of government and abortion before vegetarians agree that organic, grass-fed veal gets a 5 for welfare.
Loads of information, but important information’s still missing
While the package’s guiding system continues to be debated, and Bittman’s dream label is a distant aspiration, there are two information pieces still surprisingly missing from the nutrition panel itself:- Added sugar: Total sugar is listed in the nutrition panel, but there’s no distinction between the naturally occurring sugar present in, let’s say, fruit, and added sugar in its many forms (including sucrose, HFCS, dextrose, dehydrated cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate and a dozen others) put into so many products by food makers.
Current dietary recommendations call for limiting the amount of added sugar in our food. Scientific studies have shown that added sugar has negative health outcomes – such as heart disease and high level of triglycerides and cholesterol -- and leads to obesity.
So stating the amount of added sugar would be useful and is long overdue. But is such labeling feasible?
According to a recent paper by Jennifer Pomeranz in the American Journal of Public Health, providing the added sugar information is both important and doable. The manufacturers already know how much sugar they’re adding, and random sampling in order to check the accuracy of the manufacturers declaration is technically realistic because each sugar source has unique, traceable, sugar isotopes.
- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO): While the debate about GMOs effect on agriculture, environment and health continues, many consumers believe they have a right to know if a food item contains them in order to make informed purchases.
GMO labeling is required in more than 60 countries, including Italy, Spain, France, Germany, the UK, Japan, China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
The California Right to Know ballot initiative is up vote November 6th, and if passed will mandate that all foods containing GMOs sold in California be labeled.
If this ballot initiative passes, this might be a precursor to mandatory labeling in other states, so the outcome of the vote goes well beyond California.
Understanding the label leads to better choices
I don’t think that reading the ingredient list is such an arduous task that we have to dumb down nutrition information to a traffic light system (although a clever, straightforward one could potentially help).
I believe that people need to have minimal nutrition knowledge in order to make the right decisions for themselves, based on their personal set of needs and values. Nutrition literacy is key to living in our obesogenic environment. Minimal medical literacy determines how well you’ll be able to care for yourself and to advocate for loved ones, and in much the same way nutrition basic knowledge promises you will be able to navigate your way to healthy food in an ocean of junk.
A de-cluttered front of package, free from misleading health claims and false promises, would give the average person a chance to turn the package around, and quickly read the ingredient list and nutrition facts. I’m always amazed at kids' deep knowledge of sports’ statistics, and the number of player's names they remember. Reading and understanding an ingredient list after a short introduction to food should be quite revealing, and exempting us from reading the label by the instant gratification of a traffic light code makes us less informed and more open to manipulation by food marketers.
And if you’re looking for a good packaged food grading system, based on nutrition facts and ingredient lists, try Fooducate’s (free) app.