Foodies, farmers, processors and others spend a lot of time talking about labels, and there are plenty to talk about.
They include how and where food was grown and processed and what is — and isn’t — in it. Labels spell out whether food has gluten, genetically modified ingredients and whether it was grown organically.
They also include how many calories a serving contains and, in many cases, how much fat and other substances are in it.
All of which is fine. We’re in favor of information. But we also wonder how much time consumers spend reading labels on food items. Our guess is that while a few people read every word, others, particularly those who are pressed for time, probably don’t. They might look for a particular brand or type of ingredient, but otherwise it may be a case of too much information.
For example, consider a small bag of Lays barbecue potato chips straight from the vending machine in the Capital Press lunchroom. On the front is the fact that the chips were baked instead of fried. Because of that they have 65 percent less fat than regular chips, according to the label. Another label indicates they are gluten free, which isn’t unusual since potatoes don’t have gluten. And the entire 1 1/8-ounce bag of chips is 140 calories.
On the back are more labels, one stating that the potato chips have no artificial preservatives or flavors and another stating there are no trans fats.
A big label includes nutrition facts and ingredients. Consumers are told the bag has 5 percent of the total daily value for fat. That includes 3 percent saturated fat, but no trans fat — the label on the front of the bag also said that — and no polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. They are also told the chips have 8 percent of the daily value of sodium and 9 percent of the daily value of carbohydrates, including dietary fiber and total sugars and added sugars. There is no cholesterol. Then there are the ingredients, which include dried potatoes, corn starch, corn oil, sugar and salt — a total of 25.
Pretty exciting stuff. If anyone ever needs help getting to sleep, we suggest reading a food container. Or better yet, they can read the 3,600-word explanation of the nutrition label on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website.
The proliferation of labels also makes us wonder whether consumers are being overwhelmed. Does the fact that potato chips don’t have gluten warrant a separate label? Does a busy shopper need all that information, down to the daily value percentage of dietary fiber?
Yet the call is for more labels, not fewer.
Some ranchers want U.S. beef labeled as such. The World Trade Organization forced the repeal of a mandatory country of origin label on beef because the governments of Canada and Mexico complained that it hurt trade. However, nothing prevents processors or stores from voluntarily labeling U.S. beef.
Likewise, some dairy farmers would like to see a “U.S.A.” label on milk and dairy products. A version of the voluntary “Real” seal already in use includes “made in America.”
So go ahead, plaster more labels on everything. But we still believe most consumers primarily rely on another label — the price tag — more than all the others combined when they decide what to buy.