The confusing world of labeling

Skull and crossbones
Image via Wikipedia

I came across this article today in the TreeHugger newsletter and it got me thinking (again) about the general challenge of desiring accurate, meaningful, and useful labeling to aid us in our role as active consumers. What I find most interesting is the seemingly inverse relationship between disclosure laws and the actual end-user value of the information disclosure. As examples, think about (1) the financial industry, and (2) the food industry. In the financial industry, when you buy any kind of an asset class (say, a stock or mutual fund) it comes with a small tree worth of paper listing out everything they are required to tell you about that asset. They have complied with the disclosure laws; we dutifully quickly flip through the dozens and dozens of pages of stuff we barely understand and then we put it aside. So, lots of data required to be shared but not much of it of very much use to the average investor. The economic  meltdown of 2007-2009 would suggest that not many of us are well informed of the risks inherent in the system, despite the volumes of data produced under disclosure rules for every single transaction we undertake.

Let’s switch to a look at the food industry. To me, it seems that food industry labeling has been designed by nutritionists — for other nutritionists. Which would be useful except that probably only a handful of “real people” buying groceries are nutritionists. For the rest of us, our search in the supermarket for our daily food turns into  a dizzying array of exotic things like riboflavine, niacine, and thiamine, how much we need, and where to look for them. We’re bombarded by information-light messages and platitudes around good cholesterol vs. bad cholesterol, omega fatty acids, and the like. When you do study the techniques of the food industry in presenting the “health” value of their products and some of their branding presentations (“Healthy Choice” isn’t necessarily “healthy” at some objective measure — it is just “less unhealthy” than the previous version) you start to really appreciate how inadequate our food labeling is in helping consumers make “informed, healthy” choices. Again, just look at our twin health crises of obesity and youth diabetes for examples of where, in part, the food industry and  incomprehensible food labeling have brought us to.

So what is the answer to this? I’m intrigued by the skull-and-crossbones as a “label”. My suspicion is that no amount of “new and improved”, “now containing Omega-3”, or “Half the calories, twice the taste” banner ads plastered across the skull-and-crossbones would soften the DANGER message inherent in the label itself. Maybe, then, the answer is a much simpler and easy to read labeling scheme:

  • a big GREEN dot says that this food is as natural as it comes — you can actually find instances of this food as a naturally occurring event in the world. Vegetables, fruits, meats, etc.
  • a big YELLOW dot says that while the food started in its natural state it has been augmented in some way and industrial processing has been involved;
  • a big RED dot says that there is really nothing natural about this food item. Even though it may have food-sounding attributes about it, it really is a product of full industrial processing and you should consider it as such.

So, by way of example — let’s suggest that natural ground beef carries a GREEN dot; frozen patties might get a YELLOW dot, and a box of hamburger helper is RED.  Of course, we could make it a little more elaborate by perhaps specifying required  percentages of “natural” ingredients at each level, and getting more specific about percentage & type of additives; alternately we could use more than the 3 levels suggested above (the US color coded alert system is now available and it has 5 levels to play with…).

I don’t know what you think, but I suspect it would be a lot easier to do grocery shopping with the family — hey kids… you’re allowed only 2 RED items as treats — everything else has to be GREEN and YELLOW..!!).

I wonder if you could even do a grocery shop at a modern supermarket and not purchase any RED items…? Food for thought, I hope…

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6 thoughts on “The confusing world of labeling

  1. So many red dots at the grocery store I am afraid… There are so many preservatives in everything these days. It is really confusing for everyone, so I like your system! What about all the high fructose corn syrup in everything? What are the long term effects of all these chemicals? You know where green dots are aplenty ? The Farmer’s Market!!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sherry.

      Yes I think we would find red dots all over the place! Assuming consumers took action and actively started purchasing less red dot items (at an aggregate) then companies would most certainly follow by redesigning and reconstituting their products to be more “yellow” and “green”. If there is anything I really do believe in it is the ingenuity of business people to figure out how to best “follow the money” in pursuit of commerce.

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