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Food Studies: What's on the Label, and What Isn't? Food Studies: What's on the Label, and What Isn't?

Food Studies: What's on the Label, and What Isn't?

by Megan Moore
April 6, 2011

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. Don't miss Megan's second post, which reveals the four reasons why people choose a restaurant.


There is, I think, a bit of a difference in psyche between nutrition majors and food studies majors. For example, at the welcome meeting of our "New Grad Student Seminar" our advisor noted that there would be homemade macaroni and cheese, as well as root beer floats, adding, "Now you know this is the Food Studies Program and not the Nutrition program."

There are a few cross-over students with nutrition backgrounds in my program, but for the most part, we Food Studies students are more concerned with questions like, "What are the economic implications on growers of this free trade coffee?" than "How is my body going to convert this vegan taco into energy?"

To make sure we know something about the body's requirements and reactions to diet, we have to take a "Nutrition in Food Studies" course. This sometimes feels a bit like a "Math for English Majors" course (which I also took during undergrad), because its breadth is so huge. Our lectures cover everything from basic chemical reactions, to the difference between mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats.

But our assignments have been an awesome tool in narrowing the focus of the class. For example, we were asked recently to examine the packaging of a food product geared toward children, and reconcile the colorful front-of-box claims with the black-and-white grid of the nutrition label on the back. My conclusion: Parents have it hard. For a few major reasons.

To start with, food companies are focusing now more than ever on creating compelling packaging and in-store marketing. In 2006, food companies spent $195 million, or 12 percent of their total marketing outlay, to target consumers in-store, where 89 percent of the products they were advertising contain high levels of sugar, sodium, and/or saturated fat.

In-store and packaging-based promotion includes everything from putting athletes on boxes to sweepstakes, and from in-box prizes to products that boast philanthropic donations with every purchase. Although there has been some self-regulation within the industry, it has applied more extensively to television advertising than packaging. (Remember how long General Mill’s self-imposed "Smart Labeling" program lasted? Less than three months!)

Second of all, packaging is designed to keep parents from looking at the nutritional label. By cherry-picking nutritional (and more likely pseudo-nutritional) information available in huge lettering on the front of colorful boxes, food companies aim to appease any health or allergen concerns parents might have. But "Great source of calcium!", "No Trans Fat!", and "Gluten Free!" are weak stand-ins for the full nutritional picture.

And finally, almost all nutrition labels on food targeted at children use the recommended daily intake values for an adult who consumes 2,000 calories a day. This happens even on food for toddlers, who need just HALF the calories of adults, according to the American Heart Association.

The result is that all of the percentage daily values on the nutrition labels are completely skewed. While a cup of cereal will have the same 26 grams of carbohydrates regardless of who is eating it, that will account for 9 percent of the recommended daily intake of carbohydrates for adults and 18 percent for a two-year-old. So even if parents' eyes do make it as far as the nutrition label, there is another chance to be misled.

These are three pretty significant obstacles getting in the way of parents who want to make healthy choices for their children. The next question, of course, is how to fix them.

Megan is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang here as well as Megan's personal blog, Foodie Can't Fail.

Image: 1963 Froot Loops Packaging from Krazy Kids' Food: Vintage Food Graphics by Dan Goodsell and Steve Roden, supplied by the author.

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