Fruit-Loopy Advice from the Food Industry

So much for food labels empowering consumers.

Here’s a story about an industry-driven labelling system supposedly set up to help consumers choose healthier foods. Except, as has now been pointed out, this particular labelling system is giving consumers what is manifestly some very odd advice.

Here’s the story, from William Neuman for the NY Times: For Your Health, Froot Loops

A new food-labeling campaign called Smart Choices, backed by most of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, is “designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices.”

The green checkmark label that is starting to show up on store shelves will appear on hundreds of packages, including — to the surprise of many nutritionists — sugar-laden cereals like Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops.

Here’s the website for the Smart Choices program.

The thing to remember in all of this is that a label of this kind is supposed to be a short-cut. It doesn’t add new nutritional information — the relevant nutritional information is already on food packages, by law. Such a label is supposed to contribute two things. First, it provides a summary of of all that information: it supposedly saves you from having to add up all the numbers on the “Nutritional Facts” part of the package, compare it to other brands one-by-one, and so on. The other thing it provides is an analysis of the relevant information, an analysis consumers may not be qualified to carry out (or have time to carry out) on their own. The Smart Choice label tells consumers that this product is, well, a smart choice all things considered, and implicitly that it’s a smart choice in the informed opinion of whoever put the label there. Now, most consumers frankly won’t stop to think very hard about just whose informed opinion is being given, but the assumption is likely to be that it’s someone who a) knows about nutrition and b) is doing their best to offer sound (or at least defensible) advice.

So, what are we to make of the fact that the Smart Choices program is giving the ‘thumbs up’ to Fudgsicle bars and sugary cereals? The Dean of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts (an unpaid expert member of the Smart Choice panel) explains that the Smart Choice checkmark doesn’t mean the food is nutritionally excellent, it just means it’s a better choice. According to Professor Eileen T. Kennedy, “The checkmark means the food item is a ‘better for you’ product….”
Better than what, for example?

“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”

So…what does the Smart Choice label mean, then? It means the food bearing that label is better than, well something. That is, the Smart Choice endorsement means there is something worse you could choose. Isn’t that roughly like putting a (hypothetical) “green vehicle” sticker on a Cadillac Escalade on the grounds that, after all, it’s not quite as horrifically fuel-hungry as a Hummer?

What people designing labelling regimes have to remember is that a symbol (like the Smart Choice checkmark) doesn’t just mean whatever you want it to mean. It means what consumers take it to mean. Any normal person seeing the words “Smart Choice” next to the big, friendly green checkmark is going to assume that the people who put it there are claiming that the food in the package is not just better-than-something. They’re not going to assume that this food choice is smarter-than-some-really-dumb-choice. They’re going to assume that the food labelled “Smart Choice” actually constitutes a smart choice — something good for you and your family. And if that’s not what they’re getting, then then this labelling regime has to be counted as a failure.

While we’re on the topic of food marketing…. I’d like to draw your attention to this conference, happening this December, in Paris:

Food Marketing and Ethics Today

(I don’t normally advertise conferences on my blog, but I happen to be giving a keynote at this one, on the topic “Ethical Food Marketing in an Era of Competing Values”. It does look like it’s going to be a wonderful conference.)

[Addendum added June 2010: See also my new Food Ethics Blog.]

2 comments so far

  1. Rodica Buzescu on

    Sadly, it’s black hat tactics such as these that give marketing a bad name. They tap into the fact that people don’t typically question things, especially when it’s so convenient to have some other force make the choice easy for you.

    I’m looking forward to your notes from the Food Marketing & Ethics conference. Sounds very interesting.

  2. crespin79 on

    Excellent article about food labelling and related assumptions, in a world where there is much talk about ethics but not too many leaders adopting an ethical approach to life.

    Maxwell Pinto,
    Author of books on Ethical Leadership,

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