3 Ways More Labeling Is Not Better

The big fuss over labeling GMO (genetically modified organism) foods is the latest chapter of an age-old conflict over how much labeling is enough. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill last week to require food products with GMO ingredients to have that fact called out on the label.

Transparency and right-to-know concerns push some to think that no amount of labeling could ever be too much. Students of human behavior will tell you a very different story. Cramming ever more information onto a label only serves to hide important information in plain sight. Like it or not, regulators have to decide what’s important and make sure that consumers see it. Here are a few examples.

  1. GMO Labeling. FDA has declined to require GMO labeling on food, saying that it conveys no important safety information and that certified organic labeling already provides the means for consumers to identify foods that are GMO-free. Activists who see GMOs as a threat to human safety see GMO labeling as a way to shut down the use of GMO ingredients, as it has effectively done in Europe. The dynamic is driven by deep belief in a problem that is unsupported by any scientific evidence. One point of agreement from both sides of this issue is that tremendous confusion exists about GMO foods.
  2. Fast Food Menus. Since 2008, New York City has required calorie counts on restaurant menus. The theory was that people would think twice before ordering a Big Mac meal with fries and a Coke if you knew it meant you were eating 1130 calories. Well, guess what? People who cared (especially women) already knew it. Research has repeatedly shown that this menu information has had no impact on calories consumed. Some studies have shown a subjective awareness benefit. Other studies have shown that knuckle-headed men actually started consuming more calories, looking for the most bang for their buck.
  3. Food Labels. TMI (too much information) is an important concern when it comes to the Nutrition Facts label format. In a study published last year in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, FDA scientists found substantial room for improving Nutrition Facts labeling through greater simplicity and clarity. Likewise, the Institute of Medicine issued a report in 2011, concluding that simple and clear front-of-pack labeling standards are needed to guide consumers to more healthful choices. They recommended communication through icons and a minimum of words. The nitty gritty details of simpler labels are still very much in play, but the need for greater simplicity and clarity is not in doubt.

From each of these three cases, one thing is clear: more is not better when it comes to labeling — unless you’re talking about more simplicity and more clarity.

“It is always the simple that produces the marvelous.” — Amelia Barr

Click here to read more about GMO labeling in USA Today, here to read more about menu labeling, here to read the study of Nutrition Facts labeling, and here to read the IOM report on front-of-pack labeling.

Information Overload, image © Mark Smiciklas / flickr

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