This New York Times article about the nutritional content of grocery store foods unintentionally raises some good points about why a de facto government monopoly on food labeling and nutritional claims is a bad idea: sometimes, they get it wrong. Sometimes, consumers want something different. And sometimes, the standards are so complex as to be meaningless.
If the ostensible purpose of having these regulations is to mitigate information asymmetry between consumers and producers, perhaps a system in which defining “healthy” levels of sodium takes a cool 50 pages is not the best way to go. Do labels based on such rules really arm consumers with good information? Only if they read this consumers’ guide to nutrition labels, which clocks in at 13 pages, before going to the store.
So without the government, how could we ever possibly know if our food is good for us? Hannaford, a grocery chain in New England, is taking a stab at it, offering its customers information that is far more, well, digestible (pun only vaguely intended) than the required labels; it rates products with 0 – 3 stars indicating the overall nutritional value:
Hannaford says it is not trying to be preachy or to issue a yes-or-no checklist, just to offer guidance to shoppers who want it […] Furthermore, the company said, there is a place for no-star foods in every balanced diet.
“We are saying there are no bad foods,” said Caren Epstein, a Hannaford spokeswoman. “This is a good, better and best system.”
This point always gets lost in nutrition debates: some foods should be eaten in moderation, and others should make up a bigger part of your diet, but it’s all just food. Cookies and french fries and thick juicy steaks won’t kill you. I know, it’s anarchy. Strikingly, this pivotal point doesn’t just lost in the public debate, it gets lost in the very Times article in which it appears! Intrepid reporter Andrew Martin writes:
People who choose to adhere closely to the Hannaford ratings will have Spartan diets indeed. Not only did cookies and potato chips rate poorly, but so did whole milk…and products with nourishing-sounding names like Healthy Choice Old-Fashioned Chicken Noodle Soup.
He then notes again, presumably un-ironically, the comments of the Hannaford people:
Hannaford officials and members of the advisory panel emphasized that foods with no stars were not meant to be shunned.
“They are not everyday foods,” said Ms. Sutherland. “They are great sometimes foods.”
Oh, and a special shout out to the mom who unabashedly said, “I buy whatever it is on my list. If my kids want Cheerios, I buy them Cheerios and don’t look at the stars.” That’s a fine piece of parenting there. No doubt General Mills is to blame for your kids getting too much fiber.