The Worldwide War on Tasty Food

Governments around the world have begun to identify what they believe to be the major causes of obesity and diet-related diseases. So far, they have set their sights on four problem areas: excess calories, salt, sugar, and saturated fat. The Food and Drug Administration also plans to redefine the way terms like “healthy” and “natural” can be used on food labels. Are we about to witness a worldwide war on delicious food? If so, my guess is that tasty treats will win, but not without a few major battles along the way. Here’s how it’s playing out.

The Chilean government has already decided to put warning labels that look like black stop signs on foods that contain excess amounts of “problem” components. Canada is still struggling to employ similar stop sign warnings, as are Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina and Columbia. The US Foreign Agriculture Service expects that Saudi Arabia’s system will follow along with a mandatory traffic light system in a couple of years.

A US study that looked at a traffic light system found that 40 percent of the 175,198 packaged foods and beverages in the United States would get a red light. Those included foods like a New York slice of pepperoni pizza (480 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat and 980 mg of sodium) and an asiago cheese bagel with cream cheese (420 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat and 500 mg of sodium). In fact, any foods deemed “to die for” like baked macaroni and cheese, guacamole, chocolate, French fries and steak will include at least one warning.

Food in America hasn’t always been tasty. In Daniel Stone’s excellent book, The Food Explorer, he notes that in 1870, “Food in every way was bland. Meals had bigger things to accomplish than merely to taste good.” At that time, “the purpose of food began to shift from survival and sufficiency to something resembling gastronomic pleasure.” A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that seventeen years of trying to educate people to eat better has made only a very slight difference. One reason may be that people strategically ignore relatively small risks and just continue to eat what tastes good.

Food companies are already taking steps to avoid negative labels. Nestle, for example, is reportedly reformulating 6,500 of its foods. But history has taught us that targeting specific ingredients may bring about some unintended consequences and cause food companies to substitute even worse dietary components. When the federal government and activists pressured companies to eliminate beef fats, we got hydrogenated vegetable fats, i.e., trans fats.

Another possible unintended consequence is shifting where people eat. If consumers are bothered by unavoidable food warnings in grocery stores, they may begin to eat out more—assuming there are no scolding messages on the menus or placemats. For example, one study found that most US restaurants offer “higher-than-acceptable levels of salt, sugar and calories, and often times portions way too big.” And fast food isn’t the only culprit—it’s just as bad at full-service restaurants. Right now, about one third of calories are consumed in the nation’s 660,000 restaurants and a USDA study found full-service meals that contained as much as 2,350 calories.

Finally, picking out any nutrient, ingredient, or calorie amount and using that to decide whether to eat a complex food has always been a problem. Warnings on specific ingredients may lead consumers to believe that diet soda is healthier than chocolate milk or that trans fat-free crackers are healthier than nuts. We can’t assume that adding a warning label will cause consumers to study the overall nutrition information more carefully, because reading and comprehension are also problems. In the United States, 40 million adults are functionally illiterate, and another 50 million are only marginally literate.

There’s no question that obesity is a worldwide crisis causing premature death and disease. But the potential for the unintended consequences of stop signs and red lights to cause even worse problems should at least serve as a warning sign for governments. Before making any more changes to food labels, let’s slow down and make sure this will work as intended.

Photo by Taylor Harding