Mark Bittman’s “Dream” Food Label

Chef and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman recently published an article describing his “dream” food label.

The label would reflect a food’s nutritional value, resemblance to actual “food” and impact on the environment and food laborers.  Each “food” item would receive a score on a scale of 1 to 5 for each of these three categories, to be compiled into an aggregate score on a scale of 1 to 15.  Foods receiving a score of 11-15 would receive a green bar; those scoring 6-10 would receive a yellow bar; and those scoring from 1 to 5 would receive a red bar.

Bittman Dream Label

Do we really know how nutritious, “food-like,” environmentally friendly and labor friendly a given “food” is?

The challenges of putting together a system like this are obvious.  Though red, yellow and green bars may make consumers’ decisions much easier, it’s not so easy to decide which color each food should receive.  Deciding what foods are most nutritious, which are the most “food-like” and which are the best for the environment and workers is no simple task.  Is fat bad?  Sugar?  Do we really know what work conditions are like for every food?  What about foods with thirty or forty ingredients?  How do we track work conditions?  Environmental friendliness?  What’s “food-like” and what isn’t?

And we can hardly imagine food companies sitting calmly on a red or yellow label, when foods that are arguably less healthy, or less good for the environment, are given a “better” color bar.  Politically, the reality is that food companies may have little leeway to influence rankings once standards are put in place, but they may have great say in determining what those standards are.  The sugar lobby will argue that sugar shouldn’t be viewed too harshly, the meat lobby that animal products are healthy, processed food companies that there’s no difference between food that’s been ground up and recombined, and food that hasn’t.

So implementing a label like this would pose enormous challenges not only politically but logistically.

Still, some of these problems may be good ones to have.  It would encourage a lot of debate, research and public inquiry as to what’s actually healthy, what’s actually good for workers and the environment, and what sorts of processing are the most harmful.  Though it would drive lobbying on the part of interest groups, this lobbying can come, to a greater or lesser degree, from both ends.  And though judgment calls are tough to make, they do force us to think about what criteria we want to use and which ones really make sense.

And clean, clear, crisp signals like the one Bittman is proposing have shown to have some impact.  Tests on using a similar traffic-light style labeling system showed that purchases of soda dropped 16.5% after it received a “red” light.

But is Bittman’s system the best we can dream up?  For my own purposes, I’m not so sure.  Green, yellow and red surely send a clear signal.  But when you mix four different factors – nutrition, “foodness,” environmental friendliness and labor conditions – into one coding system, you also obscure just what that code means.  Is the “foodness” of food really that important?  Are all processed foods bad, no matter what ingredients they contain?  Is the wage of workers thousands of miles away as important to me at this moment than the health of my only, growing child?  What if I’m a climate skeptic, but want nutritious food?  What if I believe in eating whole foods, but don’t believe in “nutritionism,” or the idea that certain nutrients are good, and others bad?

Bittman goes some way toward addressing these issues by breaking out the ratings for each of the three categories, but the color is still coded to a general agglomeration of factors that may be much more or less important to any given shopper than any other factor.  The idea is to encourage someone to make a snap decision based on color coding, but if you care more about one of these grading categories than about others, the color merely serves to confuse.  Does it really make sense to blend such disparate factors as nutritional content and workers’ rights into one “black-and-white” rating?

Maybe, despite these downsides, color coding is worth it.  Certainly, it’s good to get ideas out there.  And if a red light prevents people from drinking so much soda, then who am I to argue?

But I have two other issues with Bittman’s proposal.  One is, I’m not sure any foods other than whole fruits and vegetables, and maybe animal products from fully pastured livestock, deserve any imprimatur, for instance a green traffic light that unqualifiedly suggests “go.”  We don’t have to fully eliminate all foods that don’t meet these criteria from our diets – I certainly don’t, despite my strong feelings about them – but the less we eat of those other foods, the better.  Putting the green traffic light on these other foods seems to suggest that we ought to eat them, and as much of them as possible.  But my guess is, many of these foods that would receive Bittman’s green light are foods I would suggest eating as little of as possible.

Second, we simply don’t know enough right now to rank foods this way.  Maybe it’s a no brainer to give soda a red light, because it has zero nutrition and many calories.  Maybe it’s the same way for candy.  (Though Bittman seems to suggest that candy could receive a reasonably high score if it’s somehow minimally processed and environmentally friendly–not a result that makes much sense to me.)  And maybe it’s a no-brainer to give fresh fruits and vegetables a 15 (though I have a feeling certain fruits would be singled out – for instance, due to the fat content of avocados or the sugar content of mangos – as “yellow” foods).

But with every other food it’s much harder to tell.  How about artificially sweetened foods?  Foods that are “natural” but include a lot of sugar?  Foods that have no sugar but lots of natural fat?  Animal products raised industrially, and fed diets the animals’ bodies can’t handle?  “Fruit juices” that have very little fruit?  “Natural” sugars?  Oils extracted with high heat and chemicals?  With all these foods, we’re taking shots in the dark as to how healthy they actually are.

So, if we want to keep the simplicity of Bittman’s system, but recognize the problems identified above, maybe there’s an easier, and more practical, way.  Maybe it does make sense to label foods–but only those that are so good, or so bad, that research and consensus leave virtually no question how good they are.  Label them red or green.  And everything else should receive a yellow bar, or no bar whatsoever.  Otherwise, we’re picking winners and losers when we don’t have the knowledge needed to do it right.

Bittman’s system may be better than what we have today.  But it may not.  While there are negatives to the information dump we currently see on labels, where all sorts of data are thrown at us but we’re given no simple, immediate, flash-point way to make purchasing decisions, the benefit of that system is that it does let us make our own decisions based on what we feel is important.  And Bittman’s system obscures that result by giving us the conclusions someone else has drawn, without showing us how they drew them.  Personally, I’d rather draw my own.

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