Do Food Labels Actually Matter?

The Lempert Report
April 17, 2020

According to a 2019 BMJ study there are 31 different types of labels worldwide telling customers how much fat, salt and sugar there is in the food they buy

Those are all in addition to the traffic lights, different colored nutrition tags and healthy choice shelf signs.

Michael Skapinker, a writer I enjoy reading has a “must read” column in Financial Times “Mexico’s blunt food labels will aid obesity fight” and has developed his own measure of food label effectiveness: the Squeal Index. 

Basically he explains, the greater the food companies’ fury (or squeal) about a new type of labeling, the better it probably is. By his standard, Mexico and Chile are on to a winner. 

The Financial Times reported that Mexican shoppers would soon see large black labels on their food and beverages warning if they contained too much sugar, too much fat or too many calories . Some foods, such as crackers and biscuits, would carry all three labels. 

Mexico is following Chile whose black labels seem to have delivered results, including a 25 percent fall in sugary drinks sales over the past year. Michael says that the president of the Mexican Council for the Consumer Goods Industry, threatened injunctions. It’s an ideological crusade against the processed food industry he said. For Michael, that’s quite high on the Squeal Index. 

I like his Squeal Index premise. 

We have spent so much time and money on label schemes that typically have been designed by committees that want to be sure that every voice of the food world (with the exception of farmers – who after all probably know the most about the foods we eat) have a seat at the table.

The results are usually confusing and I would say, based on American’s BMI and waistlines ineffective.

A great example he shares is schemes such as red, amber and green traffic lights, mean that butter and spreads, for example, are both labeled red for saturated fats, even though spreads contain far less saturated fat than butter. 

In my opinion, the average US shopper can’t relate the information on the nutritional facts label to make healthier choices either.

Maybe it is time to use a more effective communication – black scary and squeal-y labels sound like a great idea to me.