A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Dumbing Down Nutrition

When I was a kid, we didn’t have any nutrition labels on food. Of course, back then I didn’t care what was in the food, as long as it tasted good, Now that I’m older, I read the labels more often, and I must say that I’m impressed with how nutritional disclosure has improved over the past couple of decades. For example:

  • Nutritional labels now state the vitamin and mineral content of a product as a percentage of our Recommended Daily Allowance.
  • Fast food chains now provide nutritional information upon request, and some even print it on their table tray liners. 

Nutritional labelling is becoming more widespread and comprehensive all of the time, thus enabling the consumer to make intelligent, healthy and well-informed choices. That’s why I was surprised and disappointed to see a major supermarket chain (which shall remain nameless) promote a new nutritional labelling programme. This is what was included in their weekly grocery flyer:

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At first glance, it looked like a way to simplify nutritional labelling, and it appeared harmless enough, until I turned the page and read the details.

I don’t mind simplification; in fact, I even wrote a blog post praising Steve Jobs’ minimalism and his personal philosophy that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Unfortunately, this particular simplification of nutritional labelling is not only useless, but (if relied on exclusively) erases the gains we’ve made during the past couple of decades. Fortunately, this is merely one grocery chain’s attempt to simplify nutritional labelling and is intended to supplement, rather than replace the existing product nutrition labels.

As you can see from the description, this new “Guiding Stars” categorization system assigns 1-3 stars to food items. Suddenly, all of our food falls into only three categories, represented by a corresponding number of stars. This over-simplification is (to me, anyway) reminiscent of the line in George Orwell’s Animal Farm “Four legs good; two legs bad”.

This Guiding Stars system, on its own, removes a consumer’s ability to analyze properly, the nutritional value of a food item. For example:

  • Individual ingredients such as sodium, fat and sugar, are now bundled together, rather than listed separately.
  • The amounts of these items are no longer quantified. It’s up to the consumer to guess how much saturated fat or sodium a product needs to contain that will cause it to lose a star.
  • Since sugar is not quantified, this evaluation method is completely useless to diabetics.
  • If you’re counting calories, you will be disappointed with this system, since calories and serving sizes are not listed.
  • Someone with high blood pressure may be on a reduced sodium diet. Therefore, the sodium content of each product is of paramount importance. The Guiding Stars evaluation system addresses only “added sodium” and lumps it together with fats and sugar.
  • Similarly, someone with high cholesterol will pay close attention to the amounts listed on nutritional labels. The Guiding Stars initiative (judging from their promotional material) doesn’t even mention cholesterol.

In my opinion, this is not only a bad idea, but also a sad commentary on our society. This evaluation method (when used alone) not only prevents consumers from making intelligent and informed dietary choices, it also strikes me as patronizing and condescending. The implication here is that we are incapable of doing our own analysis based on our individual dietary goals (or restrictions) and need corporations to slap what amounts to a “healthy”, “OK” or “unhealthy” label on all of our grocery items. The accompanying media quotes also talk down to us:

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“it is in no way influenced by any brand…”. Neither are the standard nutritional labels. Are they trying to make us feel grateful for a lack of corruption or influence in the food industry?

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“Trying to sort between the healthy food and the not-so-healthy stuff seems to get tougher all the time”. Really? Maybe if you’re a drooling imbecile. Two decades ago, food items didn’t even have nutritional information on their packaging. It’s never been easier to determine what is healthy. This quote is utter nonsense.

In my blog post Be A Critical Consumer, I talk about the increasingly condescending way that corporations are treating consumers. Many corporations (in my opinion) seem to think that we will automatically jump up and down excitedly at whatever product is dangled in front of our collective noses. They don’t seem to understand that the vast majority of consumers are intelligent and are perfectly capable of making informed decisions. This ability is especially important when making decisions concerning our diet, and by extension, our health.

Be aware of any dumbing down that you see, and refuse to be treated like a simpleton. Don’t tacitly allow corporations to decide what is good or bad for you; do your own analysis and make those decisions for yourself.

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