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Chef Laura: Food labels of the future

Laura Cook Newman //March 6, 2014//

Chef Laura: Food labels of the future

Laura Cook Newman //March 6, 2014//

Unless you live in Arizona or Hawaii, the changing of the clocks for Daylight Savings Time tends to sneak up on us and cause mass confusion for a day or two. 

We’ve grown to accept this disruption in our lives and adapt accordingly.  I have a friend who adapts by intuitively subtracting one hour from the little digital clock in her car for seven months out of the year.  Problem solved!

Since Benjamin Franklin conceived the idea in 1784, DST has undergone more changes than Ellen DeGeneres’ wardrobe during Oscar-hosting duties. 

FDR implemented Daylight Savings year-round in 1942 to conserve energy during WWII.  But it continued to be tinkered and tweaked over the years.  In 2007 the current schedule was proposed where we spring one hour forward the second Sunday in March and fall one hour back the first Sunday in November. 

Government intervention resulting in frequent modification and mass confusion has also been applied to US food labels.  You know, those cryptic words and numbers on the side of the Cheerios’ box that you numbly read in the morning waiting for coffee’s caffeine to kick in.

A brief history…

In an attempt to keep folks honest, Abraham Lincoln launched the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry in 1862. This was the predecessor to what we now know as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

As recently as 1990 and before, packaged foods were not required to have nutritional labels and consistent health claims.  That didn’t sit well with consumers who felt bamboozled by false claims of “light” and “lowfat”.  So the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act passed.

By 1991, the FDA had it all figured out and called the label “Nutrition Facts”.  It included the nutritional nuts and bolts about a packaged food.  For example, the energy yielded (aka calories) based on a miniscule ½ cup serving size of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.

That same year, I was a college freshman putzing around Burlington, Vermont and took a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory.  Back then, they were developing the mini cup: an adorable 3.6 oz container of ice cream, complete with its own spoon.  The tour guide mentioned “Consumers asked us to make a ‘single serve’ size, but we thought we already had,” holding the original pint high over head.

But seriously folks, nowadays, when we hear the word “epidemic” in America, we immediately think “obesity”, not “small pox”.  And that’s a good indicator to the White House that it’s time to tinker with those labels once again for fear that we might explode.

Last week, the FDA proposed a significant makeover to the Nutrition Facts label.  Apparently the government does not trust us to do basic math (270 calories per serving of B&J’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough x 4 servings = 1080 calories per pint!).  Or perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to scoop out 4 ounces of Chunky Monkey, and replace the unused portion back in the freezer.

The new labels, which will take a year or more to implement will have realistic serving sizes.  You would think selecting the flavor Chubby Hubby would indicate you’re in for a caloric wallop regardless of your ability to read the side panel. 

The facelift will also separate sugars that occur naturally in foods (fruits, veggies, and milk can have a lot of “sugar” in them) and the amount of added sugar, like high fructose corn syrup.

And no need to find your “readers”.  The point size of the calorie count will be BIG.  Consider the new and improved labels your wakeup call!

Will changing fonts and Honest Abe-like transparency be the vaccine to America’s obesity epidemic?  The government is banking on it as people with optimal weight put less strain on the healthcare system, saving Washington DC beaucoup bucks.

I applaud the FDA for trying to make nutrition user-friendly in attempts to create a healthier America.  But creating shiny new labels is the equivalent of Parliament advising Brits to carry a pocketful of posies to ward off the bubonic plague. 

I think back to my friend who won’t advance the clock in her car this Sunday for Daylight Savings Time. That simple change is a learned behavior that she never cared to learn, so she just “makes do.”  She represents the people who will never read a food label no matter how “simple” it looks.