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Are Food Labels Really Necessary?

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Coca-Cola -- with a twist of the wrist you "open happiness." Coke may be nutritionally devoid of anything but calories and as worthy of taxation as a pack of Marlboro Lights, but brilliant marketing turned that sweet, fizzy liquid into a bottle of America. The label states 97 calories for every eight ounces of Coke Classic, but few care -- diet Coke captures a remarkably small share of the market. Most people want "the real thing."

For Italians, the real thing means a chocolate and hazelnut spread so beloved that a popular advertising slogan can seriously ask: "What world would this be without Nutella?" And get away with it, because the answer is obvious. A world where jars of happiness are no longer on the kitchen table. Next door, in France, Nutella is advertised as being a healthy part of a child's diet. "It takes energy to be a kid," says a French TV campaign for the product, turning superfluous calories into a good thing. Before we began labeling food in America, candy was advertised in the same way. For example, in the 1930s, eating a Baby Ruth candy bar was a "delicious, energizing" way to "replenish energy." Substituting the word "energy" for "calories" effectively turns a negative into a positive. Everyone wants a lot of energy.

On June 16th, The European Union, concerned that all of this "energy" might be contributing to a growing rate of obesity, voted to draft a proposal that would make nutritional information a requirement on food labels. If this is passed, fat, salt and sugar will be identified, probably on the front, of packages in EU countries. This is a compromise from a big red warning sticker that was the EU's first choice. Nutella is in no way being singled out, but many Italians fear that the information may scare people away from their beloved spread, and that is perceived as life altering."Hands Off Nutella," is one campaign. The cabinet minister for EU affairs refers to the horror of it all as "nutritionist fundamentalism."

In America, foods have carried this type of information for decades, and we just keep getting fatter. When we first began labeling our rate of obesity was about where Italy is today. That would be, according to the 2009 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Factbook, 10 percent. France is the same. We are at 34 percent, although the latest Gallup poll shows a slight uptick. It seems fairly safe to conclude that the labels make for interesting reading and help some of us keep extraneous sugar and fat out of our cereal and crackers, but are not a generally effective way to reverse the obesity epidemic, at least in America. ("Obesity," according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is defined as a body mass index (BMI) above 30, while "overweight" is 25-30. You can calculate your BMI here. )

Ironically, the information we keep off of our labels is the very thing people in the EU insist upon. They demand to know whether any ingredients have been genetically modified. GM crops are still prohibited from being planted in Europe, but products containing GM ingredients can be sold as long as they are clearly identified. Congressman Denis Kucinich (D-OH) has recently introduced H.R. 5577, The Genetically Engineered Food Right To Know Act. Similar bills have been introduced before, but never passed. Information about GM ingredients is kept off of our food labels because extensive funding, mainly from Monsanto, has been successful. The company is afraid that if given a choice, consumers might prefer those old fashioned amber waves of grain -- that is, wheat or corn that doesn't have to be grown in soil so soaked in Monsanto's herbicides that nothing except Monsanto's genetically altered seeds can live. And they will certainly spend huge sums again in an attempt to protect their profits and squelch H.R. 5577.

Of course Ferrero, Nutella's parent company, is also fearful of losing market share. One could argue that Monsanto and Ferrero are similar; they just want to conceal different pieces of information for personal gain. However, when it comes to Monsanto, it is more than just sins of omission. The company claims that GM labeling will translate into higher consumer costs -- a hot button scare tactic that is senseless. They also say that GM crops solve the problem of world hunger, unverified and untrue.

A vice president for Ferrero recently stated their argument against ingredient labeling as being that it could "...influence...the most intimate aspect of one's personal sphere, like the genuine and healthy pleasures that are passed among generations." In other words, hands off our food. Don't genetically alter it, and don't bother telling us Nutella has a lot of sugar and fat. We can figure that out without a label, and we don't want to take the fun out of a spoon or two on our bread in the morning.

There is much to be said for knowledge and the ability to make educated choices. But the bottom line is that we are better off respecting our food than analyzing it. It should nourish both body and soul, and that is really what this fight in Italy over Nutella is all about.

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