Pacific Coast League Scorecard 1906

A Scorecard for Food Labeling

Is food labeling “a surprising failure” as Omri Ben-Shahar suggests in Forbes this week? Or is the truth of food labeling that “knowledge is power,” as Emma Axelrod suggests in the Brown Political Review?

The strongest example of a failure for food labeling that Ben-Shahar cites is the case study of restaurant menu labeling. The assumption has long been that calorie labeling for restaurant menus would lead people to select food that is not crammed full of more calories than they need. But experience has proven otherwise. As Aaron Carroll pointed out in a thoughtful New York Times commentary late last year, calorie counts on restaurant menus have proven to have little effect on consumer behavior.

On the success side of the ledger, trans fat labeling is a good case study. After FDA required disclosure of trans fats on food labels in 2003, blood levels of trans fats dropped in U.S. adults and trans fats virtually disappeared from the U.S. food supply. These changes opened the door for FDA to finally and completely ban trans fats from food last year.

So when you consider these two extremes, it’s pretty clear that food labeling is neither an abject failure nor a panacea for promoting healthier consumer behaviors. It all depends upon the context and the application.

What food labeling clearly cannot be is a substitute for sorting out a real health issue. In the case of trans fats, the science is pretty clear. They’re bad. Putting them on food labels empowered consumers to shun products that use them. It prompted food makers to get rid of them. In the case of restaurant calories, not everyone is counting them. Requiring restaurants to label them has not changed that fact.

The current battleground for labeling is GMOs (genetically modified organisms). As a substitute for working out this highly polarized issue, two camps of zealots for and against mandatory labeling of GMOs are duking it out.

If history is any guide, all this heat will bring little light to consumers.

Click here to read more from Omri Ben-Shahar and here to read more from Emma Axelrod.

Pacific Coast League Scorecard 1906, image © Stuart Rankin / flickr

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April 20, 2016