Would warning labels on food make people eat better?
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Food labelling is an excellent way to make people eat better. People don’t want to become obese and...
Food labelling is an excellent way to make people eat better. People don’t want to become obese and unhealthy, so if you provide them with the right information, they will make a different choice. To make sure the information is actually read, it needs to be clear, specific and understandable. It also needs to be visible at the moment of choosing to buy the product, so that consumers can actually pick an alternative.
Food labelling is a pretty poor way of making people eat more healthily. The idea assumes that people actually read the label – which quite often, they don’t. Reasons for this can vary: consumers might be in a hurry when buying groceries or don’t understand the information. A lot of consumers don’t really care enough about the long-term dangers of eating unhealthily and find it too much of a fuss.
People are able to make rational decisions, once they’re given the relevant information. Take a loo...
People are able to make rational decisions, once they’re given the relevant information. Take a look at smoking: a study by the World Bank has shown that the more educated someone is about the health risks of smoking, the more likely they are to quit. And they quit even though smoking is addictive and thus gives them a very powerful biological push to continue. If people can quit smoking, why should they be unable to start eating more healthily?
Even if people would read the label, they probably won’t change their behaviour. This is because humans are not very rational: they often sacrifice a longer term benefit for a short term gain. Take a look at smoking: even though everyone knows that smoking is a serious health risk, people still smoke. “Bad choices” may be a result of peer pressure, maybe because they think it looks cool or because they like the kick of the nicotine in the here and now. \
The same goes for food: the short term satisfaction of a tasty supersized, extra-fat hamburger will outweigh the longer term health benefits of eating a salad instead. This is all the more so because there are very powerful biological factors leading us to prefer fat, salty or sweet foods. In times of food scarcity these foods are the most essential for our survival because they provide the most energy. Thus after millions of years of evolution, we’ve become hard-wired to prefer salty, sweet and fatty foods.
The information on a food-label can indeed be very complicated, but that’s not an argument against f...
The information on a food-label can indeed be very complicated, but that’s not an argument against food labelling per se. There are several proposals which aim to simplify this complex information, like for example the traffic light system and the GDA-system. These are simple labelling systems which can tell the consumer at a glance if something is healthy or not.
But even if people would read the label and are rational enough to change their behaviour, they probably won’t understand the information on the label. For example, what is the difference between saturated fat and trans fat, and why is that relevant? What are “carbohydrates” and are they good or bad? Is what is healthy for an elderly person also good for an active, growing teenager? Being able to understand what’s in your food requires a lot of specialist knowledge which the average consumers doesn’t have.
The impact of bad diet on people throughout the world is leading to a global health emergency. For ...
The impact of bad diet on people throughout the world is leading to a global health emergency. For the first time, teenagers in richer countries may now enjoy less healthy lives and may die younger than their parents. Not only is there a strong moral case to act to change the way people eat, unless something happens governments soon won’t be able to afford the extra healthcare costs. Clearly banning certain foods or forcing people to eat more vegetables would be too harsh. But passing labelling laws will nudge people in the right direction and push food companies to provide healthier choices for fear of losing business.
Putting labels on food packages may actually have a bad impact on diet. In Michael Pollan’s words, what people should be doing is: “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too much”. And they should be cooking food themselves, from fresh, raw ingredients - they shouldn’t be having a lot of processed, packaged foods made in factories. Labels that suggest that certain processed foods are in some way healthy may actually push people away from cooking from scratch, which would almost always be better for them.
The Traffic Light system is the best way to provide consumers with health information about food, be...
The Traffic Light system is the best way to provide consumers with health information about food, because it provides very clear visual information which can help a consumer decide without having to read the fine print. Suppose you’re choosing between two bags of potato chips, and one has “red” and the other has “orange”. Without having to read percentages of fat and salt for each bag, you can immediately see that the one labelled orange is the better choice. It requires the least effort for consumers and will therefore be the most effective.
The Traffic Light system is the worst way to provide consumers with health information. The colours are unnecessarily judgemental: they suggest for example that even the smallest bag of crisps is inherently “bad” – which it isn’t. One small bag doesn’t lead to serious negative health effects. Moreover, it leads to misunderstanding. In reality, it’s not the amount of fat, salt or sugar that every serving of food contains that makes you unhealthy – it’s the amount of fat, sugar and salt that you consume over an entire day that counts. But when one bag of crisps is coded “orange” and another is coded “red”, you might take home the orange one, but you are very likely to take home more than just one, because you believe them to be “healthier”.
The GDA-system is the best way to provide consumers with health information about food because it al...
The GDA-system is the best way to provide consumers with health information about food because it allows consumers to understand how a portion of food will measure up to their Guideline Daily Amount. So, unlike the traffic light system, it won’t lead to overeating of “healthier” products because it provides more factual information. It says clearly how much of your maximum recommended daily dose of sugar, fat and salts you will have eaten once you’ve eaten this specific product, and will thus give you better information as to whether you should eat that second bag of chips or not.
The GDA-system is the worst way to provide health information, because it is takes more time to read and understand it. Purchasing decisions are made in a split second, and reading the GDAs costs too much time. Moreover, there is a risk that consumers interpret the GDA as a target instead of a maximum, encouraging them to eat more instead of less salt, fat and sugars. Lastly, it assumes that consumers are good enough at Maths to be able to add up all the percentages over the day and decide at the end if they’ve had too much or not. Most consumers aren’t up to this, and even if they are, they’ll probably wouldn’t like the hassle of counting every calorie.
The two systems (traffic and GDA) are not in competition. Combining them creates a system that carr...
The two systems (traffic and GDA) are not in competition. Combining them creates a system that carries the benefits of both systems and deals with the disadvantages of each system. It provides at-a-glance information, helping people make quick decisions, and it provides factual information, helping consumers to calculate their daily intake.
Even if it would generate all the benefits of both systems and leave out all of the disadvantages, consider the amount of information that one label now has to carry. That amount of information will never fit on, let’s say, a candybar. Moreover, it will deliver mixed messages: a small portion of food could be coded red but still contribute only a very small percentage to your GDA – what should a consumer decide? And is it fair to ask producers to do all this work when we’re not sure the consumer even understands it?
What do you think?