A reader thinks putting symbols on labels is a better approach than dumping a list of nutritional content on diners

At Reason.com, Radley Balko argues that New York’s new calorie-posting requirements for restaurants with 15 or more outlets is “bound to fail.” Condensing (and hopefully not warping) Balko’s argument: It’s expensive, restaurants that want to save money have to spend time breaking down food into basic ingredients that can be evaluated (and then locking themselves into a specific recipe), and lawsuits will still be common.

Reader Garrick Linn thinks a labeling policy might be a superior strategy to nutritional disclosure. He posted this quote on the Reason.com board.

Balko raises some interesting points about the real costs of implementing various labeling policies. Perhaps NYC would be better served (so to speak) by setting up something like the EPA’s voluntary Energy Star program for food, complete with a logo and certification process. It worked for monitors…why not marzipan?

FWIW (For What it’s Worth), I’m rather skeptical of the claim that nutrition labeling has done consumers no good simply by pointing to the failure of labeling to singlehandedly reverse what is undoubtedly a complex sociobiological phenomenon; speaking as someone who actually pays attention to the information on nutritional labels (well, at least when I’m trying to lose weight) I wonder if the important issue isn’t whether or not to label so much as how the current labels are used and whether they can be improved. One study seems to indicate that consumers often erroneously assume that a single wrapped package of (say) two granola bars contains a single serving and treats the calorie count on the back accordingly…if the requirement were changed so that the count reflected the total amount of calories per individually wrapped package, this would give consumers better information based on how they actually use the labels.

Linn followed up with some comments for the Nudge blog:

In a sense the Energy Star program is a natural fit for food. After all, calories are a measure of chemical energy. There are probably better and worse ways of going about it. For example, using categories/tiers such as dessert, entrée, side dish, etc. might allow for better comparisons between dishes, but I’d worry that a creative chef might find a way to disguise a side as a dessert in order to qualify for a favorable rating if careful attention isn’t paid when drafting criteria for each category. I’m reminded of the old cliche about reclassifying certain cars as light trucks in order to get around emissions standards.

The American Heart Association has had a food certification program in place for “Heart Smart” foods since the mid-90s which grants companies the right to use a logo on specific products if certain requirements are met around fat, cholesterol and sodium (although not calories.) I’m not sure if good data is available on how successful the program has been, but even if it hasn’t done as well as originally hoped it should provide some insights into how (and whether) to take a closer look at this kind of approach.

We are not aware of any studies on the effectiveness of the food certification program, although critics blasted it (JAMA article is restricted) for requiring companies to pay the AHA a fee for the right to label its products. The AHA said it covered the costs of the labeling program. That said, the AHA’s web site features a quick way create a grocery list of only healthy-heart foods. It’s a heck of a lot faster and easier than creating a list off the FDA’s Heart Health site.

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