Libel on The Label


By Marla Boone

Contributing Columnist

Most of us are either eating healthier or talking about eating healthier or pretending to eat healthier. Sure, there are still those who consider deep-fried Oreos to be the perfect food but most of us conquer the impulse to have them for dinner three times a week.

In an effort to promote their products, educate the public, and avoid prosecution by the FDA for non-compliance, food companies are expanding the labels on containers. Still, some consumers have enormous capacity for denial. One woman I know is convinced a food that supplies 2% of the RDA for fat consists of 2% fat. She cannot figure out why she keeps gaining weight and is unwilling to be swayed by the facts.

Someone far more clever than I once remarked, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.” As if something so palpably true needed proving, this little pearl is demonstrated thousands of times a day in grocery stores across the literate world. All the good news is in large print. “New and Improved!” (Along with large print goes an inordinate number of unnecessary and annoying exclamation points.) “New Size!” “Great taste!” All the not-so-good news is much more modestly presented. It goes without saying that the new size is not a larger size. Everything about it is smaller except the price. The “Great Taste!” claim is accompanied by a photo on the box or can that shows the contents in a nicely garnished bowl surrounded by a lovely table setting and a beverage. If you’re unusually astute you will notice the inevitable small print disclaimer… “serving suggestion.” This means the food inside is not going to remotely resemble what’s on the label without a fair amount of accessorizing by the cook. And no product is going to pronounce itself as “Mediocre Taste” or “Barely Edible.” No, it has “Great Taste!” Sometimes the “Great Taste!” is because of “Tangy Flavor!” or “Cheesy Goodness!” You’ll certainly never see a package claiming the “Great Taste!” comes from “More Chemical Additives Than Ever!”

Since the food processing industry has invested so much effort and money into their labels, it would be a shame not to peruse them. I am an inveterate label reader. Of special interest to me is the relative size of the print that outlines the calories per serving as compared to the size of print that explains the servings per container. (Once again demonstrating the eternal verity that the large print giveth…) The joy of seeing a chocolate bar has only one hundred calories is sharply tempered by further reading that reveals the calorie count is per serving and the four-bite candy bar is considered two servings. The cruelest joke, of course, is the normal-sized package that is now deemed “sharable.” If M&M peanuts were meant to be shared… well that is just ridiculous. M&Ms are obviously not meant to be shared, and I’m not about to fool with tradition.

Not to beat a dead horse (and what poor sap is going to be tasked with figuring out how many servings a dead horse would offer), but this calorie per serving racket takes some pretty inventive marketing. Hidden away in a forgotten garret somewhere, a government official has decided what calorie count constitutes low fat or no fat. Food companies that want to tout how very un-fattening their products are have been forced to massage the facts about those products to appeal to us consumers. Retrieved from the trivia files in my mind comes the almost useless fact that if a product has less than one half gram of fat per serving it can be advertised as no fat. If it has no more than three grams of fat per serving, it can be called low fat. All this sounds as though every one of us will be wearing size two jeans any day now until you read that a 10-ounce can of soup contains two and a half servings. A pound of pasta contains eight servings. This is two ounces per serving. Two ounces is not worth boiling water for. Two ounces will barely hold its own against Cheesy Goodness. And that’s just cheesy.

Marla Boone resides in Covington and writes for Miami Valley Today.

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