What’s in a Label?

Food isn’t as simple as it used to be. Once upon a time, a bottle with a picture of an apple on it was pretty likely to contain apple juice…you know, the juice of an apple. A real apple. One of those things that grows on trees. These days, the bottle might contain apple juice, or mostly apple juice, or apple-flavoured synthetic apple beverage. Plus, once upon a time, people (supposedly) knew which foods were (supposedly) good for them, because products were simple. Apples were apples. Beef was beef. Butter was butter. Now, apples can be genetically modified, beef can be mechanically separated, and butter-like products may-or-may-not contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Modern food labelling seeks to help consumers navigate these murky waters. Just how effective is it?
Here’s the story from Reuters: Americans puzzled by food labels

Most Americans read food labels to help them decide what to buy but few people actually understand what they’re reading or consuming, according to two U.S. studies published on Tuesday.

What sort of information confuses consumers?

Overall, patients correctly answered 69 percent of the questions, but they had problems understanding serving sizes and extraneous information and completing simple calculations.
For instance, only 32 percent of patients could correctly calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a 20-ounce bottle of soda that had 2.5 servings in the bottle, and only 23 percent could determine the amount of net carbohydrates in a serving of low-carbohydrate spaghetti.

This is pretty bad. On one hand, it speaks to the functional illiteracy (and innumeracy) of a significant portion of the American (and, I’m guessing, Canadian) population. But it also means that a significant number of consumers just aren’t benefiting from the additional information that food packagers are required to provide. Think about what this means beyond food labels: the results of these studies probably also imply that roughly the same percentages of people aren’t understanding the specs for their cars (or their car loans), mortgage documents, safety instructions on power tools, etc. If autonomous choice requires full information, so much for consumer autonomy.

Roughly, this implies 3 options:

1) Work hard at improving literacy rates, especially when it comes to reading consumer labels. (Just whose responsibility is that, anyway?)
2) Give up on labels. (“They don’t work, so why bother?”)
3) Shrug our shoulders and say, “No system is perfect. Some understanding is better than none.”


In an article forthcoming in the Journal of Business Ethics, Melissa Whellams and I argue that there’s no ethical obligation for corporations to label Genetically Modified foods. (You can read the abstract here.) One of the things we point out (and we’re not the first to say this) is that simply providing labels doesn’t necessarily mean that people will then be able to make good choices about what they eat. If people don’t understand what a calorie or a gram of carbohydrate means, how on earth are they going to understand what it means when the label says “This product may contain Genetically Modified ingredients”? If the GM food issue interests you, go back to the list of options above, and go through them again….

[update: A loyal blog reader tells me that Oprah Winfrey recently dedicated a show to reading food labels. Given that she’s got something like 10 million viewers each week, that’s a pretty significant contribution.]

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