Is this your "dream" food label?
From Bittman at the NYT: "My Dream Food Label"
The op-ed piece begins thusly:
WHAT would an ideal food label look like? By “ideal,” I mean from the perspective of consumers, not marketers.
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. With a different set of criteria and some clear graphics, food packages could tell us much more.
Even the simplest information — a red, yellow or green “traffic light,” for example — would encourage consumers to make healthier choices. That might help counter obesity, a problem all but the most cynical agree is closely related to the consumption of junk food.
Picture below is an example of what Bittman speaks of.
Is this your dream food label? It certainly isn't mine.
Read the full thing for yourself: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/opi...
I don't think there's any such thing as an all-encompassing rating system for nutrition. One person cares about whether an item has too many carbs because they're on Atkins or have diabetes, and another cares whether it contains gluten because they're intolerant, and another is on a low-fat diet to lose weight or because their cardiologist demanded it, while yet another wants calories, fat and protein to do the Weight Watchers calculation, and many people only care about the overall calorie count.
You can't summarize nutrition information into whether or not something is healthy without making choices about what's healthy, and reasonable people can disagree on that. The most likely criteria would be the USDA food guidelines and many people think they're not great or at least not right for them.
My ideal nutrition label is pretty close to the current one -- it provides me the details I need to actually figure things out. The main change I would make is that in addition to per serving values, they should provide per container values.
If serving sizes were a little more standardized, they might make it easier to compare between two different products, but as is, they're often totally misleading. I remember buying some instant ramen bowls at Costco back in my student days, because they were pretty big and about 400 calories which was a good number for lunch. And then I got home and discovered that a serving size was half a bowl. As if it's even possible to make half a bowl of something you cook by pouring boiling water into the package. As if anyone would ever eat half a bowl of ramen. I was both angry that I'd been so manipulated and depressed because it seemed like my attempts to lose weight were being sabotaged at every turn.
So, yeah, add a second column 'per package' that matches the existing per serving information and I'm pretty much good.
Of course, that's not even touching the other sections of the Bittman label. The realities of trying to establish a rating scale that assesses foodness and welfare in a reasonable, reproducible way that won't let businesses fudge endlessly in their own favor or result in the kind of expensive assessment process that keeps new products out of the market make it a pipe dream.
Despite how silly Bittman's column might seem, there are a few interesting points in it. For one, a traffic light motif has often proved more effective at conveying a basic overview of _____ to the average person than a much more detailed panel. I don't think it would ever be implemented in the case of food labels, but it's not a bad insight.
As far as information about nutrition or healthiness goes, I don't see the need for the kind of overhaul that Bittman suggests. The current system is decent, though it could use a few tweaks - stuff like labelling GMO products for those concerned about health risks, or maybe not letting food labels claim to have no trans fat unless they ACTUALLY contain no trans fat. But personally, I prefer to have detailed nutritional information on labels, and doing away with that would be counter-productive.
As you wisely point out, reasonable people may disagree on what exactly constitutes a healthy diet. At the same time, there are many people who have very misinformed opinions about what foods are healthy and what foods are not. The scientific and medical consensus might still be undecided about exactly where and to what extent red meat fits into a healthy diet, for example, but sugary breakfast cereals aren't quite as controversial among people who study nutrition - and you'll still find plenty of laypersons who think they're good for you as long as they have added vitamins. It would be nice if the average American understood nutrition a little better, but I don't think that nutrition labels are an especially effective way to teach em. So I'd count that idea as one point against Bittman.
Evaluating 'Foodness' is just a bad idea. For one, there's the extreme subjectivity of the rating. Is xanthan gum less foodlike than cornstarch as a thickener even though you use far less of it for the same effect? We should remove points for freezing fresh produce? How does bread - which if you think of it is very processed even in its least processed forms - compare to cheese puffs? Where does fresh GMO produce fall on the scale?
But worse, everyone who cares about this kind of thing can already easily evaluate the 'foodness' of a food to their own criteria without help; and everyone who doesn't care about 'foodness' is just going to be annoyed by a vaguely condescending label telling them what they already know. Another point against Bittman.
"Wellfare" is probably his strongest point. In an ideal world, it would be nice to know at a glance how production of a food has impacted the environment, worker's conditions, and animal cruelty. And unlike 'foodness,' that information isn't readily apparent and can be fairly hard to come by.
The problem is the implementation. The standard logic holds the best way to evaluate a foodstuff for this kind of thing is to have certification from an independent body. But as we've seen with the criteria for Organic or Free-Range in the US, these bodies are easily corrupted and compromised for the interests of business. In effect, they can wind up being nearly meaningless AND costly.
I'm not clever enough to come up with a solution for the implementation problem. And frankly, Bittman isn't either. But it would be nice in an ideal world.
nope. i'm 100% in favor of GMO labeling, and the welfare rating actually would be nice - i really appreciate the system Whole Foods uses for meat now, and of course seafood ratings are extremely useful. but i prefer to determine the nutritional value and potential health benefit of food myself, based on the actual ingredients and numbers/values listed on current labels. i don't care if some government agency did a few calculations and used some formula to decide how - in THEIR opinion - a food should rate on a sliding scale of "healthy" or "nutritious" - that's of no use to me.
i've always been a big fan of Mark Bittman, but this proposal is just silly.
Not labeling GMOs is pure nonsense. As many of you know, it is the single least controversial political issue of the last 20 plus years - over 90 percent of the populace thinks it should be done. See, e.g. http://gefoodlabels.org/gmo-labeling/... (Even Ann Romney seems want them to be clearly marked so her staff can let her know. (Citation missing))
I like Bittman, and I understand his desire to dumb down food labels. It seems quite clear to me that many people make bad food decisions routinely. I mean, the success of Darden Restaurants? Come on!
Nonetheless, the labels proposed don't offer me, personally, any benefit. I'd like detail. Exactly what ingredients, quantities, packaging information, no "catch all" phrases like "natural flavors" - that would be good. But, at bottom, the thing is, I'm not obese. I have three degrees. I question pretty much everything. The label proposed are not for me (or many of you), but I do see some need for something like them.
Don't forget also, it's not just what's in our food, but what it's packaged in too. BPA's are not labeled on cans, and there are also harmful chemicals in other packaging, like BHT in cereal packaging. You also can't tell how your meat was raised, if there are antibiotics, and so on.
It's unworkable. Mark Bittman used to be a sensible guy - the "How to Cook Everything" books are very good. Ever since he went vegetarian, however, he's been on one crusade after another relating to his concept of what's healthful, and often hasn't known what he's talking about - literally, as some Hounds have pointed out. I've just about written him off.
Assigning the "foodness" and "welfare" ratings would be a costly process since we'd presumably have to set up some kind of independent agency to manage it. And I predict there'd be many opportunities for manipulation of the process by those with business or political interests. The end result: more expensive food with limited additional valuable information.
Interesting, but honestly, I don't trust what my country considers to be "nutritious." I do wish we would label GMO's and we would make trans fat illegal, as it is in Europe. One of the primary reasons I stopped eating out (well, there's lots of reasons) is because I want to know what's in my food. Sorry to rant, but I rarely read the nutrition label. The thing I find the most information from a package of food is the ingredient listing. Thank you for the interesting topic.
Low fat, all natural, no preservatives, etc. . . don't mean a thing. Read your ingredients, and know what to look out for. Consumers need to educate themselves, and no nutritional label will do it as far as I'm concerned.