By Any Other Name: Good Food Should Speak for Itself

By Any Other Name: Good Food Should Speak for Itself

Ever wonder what riboflavin, high fructose corn syrup, or thiamine mononitrate is doing in your Saltine crackers? Do you even know what those ingredients are? Be honest, do you look at the nutritional facts or the back label of food products when you scan the supermarket shelves? If you’re like most American consumers the answer to all of the above is, “No.”

We see the labels but don’t know what they mean: scientific words, black and white percentages, and ingredients we can’t pronounce. For many of us, our food has become a foreign object. We’re confused about what we’re eating, so we’re eating too much of the wrong things, but it’s not our fault. Aesthetically pleasing but little else, food labels are branded with bureaucratic jargon and complicated by obscure qualifiers — they have a code that consumers don’t want, or have the time, to decipher.

The last time America’s food labels underwent a face lift was in 1991 with the creation of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, the law that gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require nutrition labeling of most foods regulated by the Agency and to require that all nutrient content claims and health claims met FDA regulations.

This was a monumental step for food policy and consumer access to nutritional information. But with so much change to our food and society over the last twenty years since then, such as: The War on Terror, The Great Recession, “Franken-foods” and the obesity epidemic (to name a few), how we can possibly have the same labeling system in place? Policy, like people, must change with the times. America’s food revolution is on the upswing, and consumers are demanding to know where their food is coming from. Under the influence of sustainability, green technology, and the Slow Food Movement, our outdated labeling system is being pressured to evolve.

But the big question is: can rethinking the food label really change how we eat? That is exactly the question GOOD and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s News21 program have teamed up to ask. Can design affect food choice? Hosting a design competition, in which anyone is welcome to submit, GOOD aims to redesign the food label to inspire better food and nutrition literacy with clear, simple, easy-to-understand labels.

Although redesigning the food label is indisputably important, the labeling debate cannot stop there. Front of Package (FOP) labeling is not regulated under the 1991 Act, yet, it plays a crucial role in consumer purchasing and in turn, healthy food choices. In the article, “How do you choose your food,” in Zomppa magazine, author Leva points out, “On average a consumer takes 25-47 seconds to make a decision about a food product, and usually, it’s based on habitual purchasing decisions… Research shows that while the majority of people report being interested in food label information, actual use of food labels is low.”

In October 2010, the Institute of Medicine conducted Phase I of an examination of FOP systems and symbols. The findings state, “As FOP labeling has multiplied, it has become easy for consumers to be confused about critical nutrition information. Adding to the confusion, manufacturers use a variety of FOP nutrition rating systems, with different and often conflicting criteria that can yield varying results.” If the overly complicated numbers and ingredients on the back label weren’t confusing enough, the FOP is driving consumers into pure bamboozlement. If we are going to achieve clarity of our food labeling and contribute positively to public health objectives, we need to rethink both our FOP labeling and the back nutritional label.

Sure the standardization of our food labeling is difficult, if not damn near impossible, but that does not mean we can give up trying. The food industry cannot be allowed to hide behind vague labeling rhetoric any longer. As healthy eating advocate, First Lady Michelle Obama, states, “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.” Food policy must be at the forefront of American concern, and our labeling system must lead the way in supporting healthful food choice decisions. No more smoke and mirrors; let’s put it all on the label and let real, good food speak for itself.