There is an interesting new proposal on the table that has all of us talking: The government wants to mandate that all food packages contain a label which ranks how nutritious that item is (or isn’t).
The government report, issued by the Institute of Medicine, recommends that a simple symbol be displayed on the front of food products and should apply to all food and beverages. The label would contain two pieces of information: the number of calories per serving and a score that rates food’s nutritional value.
The goal here is to obviously clear up consumer confusion on which foods are healthy and which ones aren’t. Government officials believe this standardized system would make it easier for people to make healthier selections when shopping and know which foods may not be the best choice.
Ellen Wartella, a professor of psychology and communication at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and chair of the committee that wrote the report explained the rationale:
A successful front-of-package nutrition rating system would enable shoppers to instantly recognize healthier products by their number of points and calorie information. It would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare, and consumers to purchase products that are lower in calories and food components that contribute to chronic disease.
All of this sounds good at first glance, but there’s just one problem: How would this rating system be developed so it’s actually fair and accurate? If it truly would include all foods, then that means meats, fruits, vegetables and dairy would all be included. And so what do you do about something like red meat? Some people may say that red meat is unhealthy, while others say that the amount of protein is good for you. So which is it? Would red meat get a healthy or unhealthy rating? And what about foods like milk or cheese? Again, some will argue these are necessary foods for our bodies, while others will say they only promote disease. And then there are other items like cereal. Can the government really say that certain cereals are healthy for us, or is it just those who are the lesser of all evils that would earn a higher score? And what about other things like dark chocolate, which again, some will say is healthy? See? Flaws.
Aside from a potentially erroneous ranking system, there is also the argument that government dollars shouldn’t be spent on labeling our foods. Maybe they would be better off spending our tax dollars on controlling how certain foods are marketed–like ad campaigns targeted to kids and teens that encourage unhealthy foods and habits, or how certain products can get away with saying they are “organic” or “natural” when, in fact, they’re not.
Now, before you think that we believe this entire idea is a bad one, we don’t. There is some good thinking behind this. If the ranking system was limited only to processed, packaged foods, then it would be easier to standardize it–especially because many of these foods have tremendous amounts of sugar, sodium and fat lurking in them that consumers may not be aware of. Like, you might think applesauce is a healthy snack choice to buy, but have you ever looked at the label? It’s loaded with sugar. A rating system like this could help, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement to healthy eating education and protecting consumers from manufacturers that aren’t being completely honest or ethical with their marketing.