(This post is part of an assignment for the class I am taking, Global Impact of New Communication Technologies at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Below is an essay about the issues I've identified within the sphere of nutrition communication, followed by my fears, recommended solutions, and resources on the subject.)
By Marcie Barnes
Why are educated people - in even the most industrialized countries of the world - so ignorant and uninformed about nutrition? Cultural influence no doubt plays a huge role, but food product marketing and labeling also make it confusing for consumers to decipher what is truly healthy. The major problem I see with ignorance about nutrition, especially here in America, is confusing information and blatant misinformation in food marketing and on the products themselves. I am going to address the latter today: issues with food labeling.
The purpose of the nutrition label is to inform consumers about what is in the food they eat and offer an easy design format that gives a straightforward listing of the ingredients, vitamins, minerals, etc. But did you know that the FDA determines what should and should not appear on the label? For example, Vitamins A and C are the only ones required to be listed on the nutrition label, unless the manufacturer is making a claim about a particular vitamin. That’s right, according to the FDA's website, these are the only vitamins allowed on the label (unless a claim is made.)
As for marketing claims on the front of the package: there are a myriad of things that can be confusing or misleading about those. The most annoying claim to me is the use of phrases such as “made with whole grains”. Just about everyone has read and heard that whole grains are much healthier than refined ones, but did you know these claims can be made even if there is the tiniest amount of whole grain in the product? The product can be full of refined white flour and the marketers can make this claim by adding a smidge of whole grain. (For more information about this and other confusing marketing terms, see “The Loopholes of Food Labeling” by Tanya Jolliffe.)
Finally, I have become increasingly concerned about the dated nutrition information I keep finding. Just one example is that new (and old) research suggests that consuming saturated fats and cholesterol isn’t necessarily what causes high cholesterol and subsequent heart-related conditions (or obesity). However, sites like the Mayo Clinic and countless others constantly tell readers to avoid eating saturated fats and cholesterol. We know that saturated fats from fish are good, so why do they keep talking about saturated fats in a blanket sense?
Please keep reading below about my top five fears related to this issue, and a few of the things I suggest that could help solve the problem.
- Growing consumer trust in companies that are selling to them and in government regulation and guidelines.
- Technically false and misleading marketing claims on packaging.
- Outdated labeling requirements and nutrition information coming from trusted sources.
- Missing information on labels.
- Consumer dependency on labels and packaged foods: a tendency to think it’s healthy because it is labeled, when it's likely that the opposite is true.
- More consumer education about eating organically (and locally). The use of the term “conventional” in description of what I call “mainstream” food forces consumers to believe that organic is the odd way to eat. When in fact, humans evolved eating off of the land: free of pesticides, preservatives, artificial colors, additives, scientifically derived ingredients (ex: corn syrup), extra hormones, and possible genetic mutations, just to name a few. Shopping in the organic grocery store is much easier for me, because I know I’m not going to find things like corn syrup on the ingredient label. Also, as more people choose organic, the “mainstream” marketers are getting the message that savvy consumers don’t want their junk. For more on why to choose organic, read this.
- Educate yourself and your children not to take marketing claims at face value. Another example of this is the “zero trans fats” claim. There is a threshold at which manufacturers are allowed to make this claim (.5 grams or less), so, the product may not truly be free of trans-fats. Combine this with unrealistic serving/portion sizes, and it’s easy to trick the consumer into eating the trans-fats they are trying to avoid. A good example of this: sorry folks, Girl Scout cookies.
- More movement towards a more comprehensive nutrition label. I am sure that real estate could be a problem with the manufacturers, but I would like to see every component of a prepared food listed. At the least, manufacturers should be required to post that information on their web site, or even a on the USDA's website so it is centrally located. I often have a hard time find comprehensive nutrition information about products I am curious about, even online. The USDA Nutrition Database does contain comprehensive nutrition information on a lot of mainstream products, but unfortunately, only a handful of prepared organic products are included.
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/labeti/guide/toce.shtml - The 2003 Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency: The current Canadian food label is considered to be the gold standard across the globe. This is the guide that details what exactly should be on a food label. A great resource for excellence in food labeling.
http://www.ifama.org/conferences/2003Conference/papers/thorCOMM.pdf - Communicating Nutritional Information to the Global Consumer: Adapting to Shifting Consumer Attitudes toward Nutrition: This paper focuses mainly on problems with food labels in relation to serving size, but in the process gives a lot of helpful information about food labels and regulation in different parts of the world.
http://ific.org/foodinsight/2007/ja/globalfoodlabelfi407.cfm - Global Consumer Perceptions and Use of Nutrition Information on Food Labels - this is an excellent article that looks specifically about consumer use, understanding, and perceptions of food labels and claims in the US, Canada, and Europe.
http://www2.acnielsen.com/reports/documents/2005_eu_labeling.pdf - The Nutrition-Conscious Global Shopper / Consumer Attitudes Towards Nutritional Labels on Food Packaging in Europe: This market report from ACNielsen is another excellent resource for investigating the usage and understanding of food labels across the globe. Particularly of interest was the inclusion of cultural/geographical trends.
http://www.labelmyfood.org.uk/forum/ - Label My Food forum: this British message board is aimed at getting more people educated on exactly what they are eating through food labeling, caters to people in a "dietary minority" to include vegetarians and people with allergies.
http://www.consumersunion.org/blogs/nimf/ - Not in My Food Blog: This informative blog, part of the Consumer's Union affiliated with Consumer Reports, reports on what is going on with food-related legislation and asks readers to get involved by writing their local decision-maker (among other things.) An important one-stop source for news regarding what's going on in Washington when it's related to what we eat.