The Institute of Medicine released its report on Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling today . In what is becoming the norm for the IOM, they totally missed the opportunity to produce something actually useful for the American public and once again demonstrated how gratuitous status and intellectual inertia can be coupled with a good dose of taxpayer's money to produce a 175 page report that is pathetic rubbish.
Not only were the authors of the report steeped in the dogma of outdated labeling practices, they could not tear themselves away from a nutrition doctrinaire that is patently false.
We have known for 4 decades that the front of the package was a totally useless place to communicate information to consumers. Under pressure from consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, (who thought they could 'control' the food industry) the government quickly agreed to a series of front-of-package, side-of-package, and back-of-package labeling schemes. The fact is there is not enough real estate on a label for useful nutritional information, nor do consumers have enough time to read and digest it.
Of course, the understanding was that if the public was made fearful of certain nutrients, the limited information on the label would compliment this fear and the consumers' choices could be influenced. Never once was there the thought of actually educating the consumer, thereby allowing for an 'informed choice.'
From the very beginning of the labeling debate, there was the option to develop the Universal Product Code or UPS or Barcode into a consumer information system. For those consumers who had a genuine interest in nutrition, one swipe of the UPC across a scanner would bring up a complete database of nutritional information, recipes, allergies, etc., etc. No longer would there be a limitation on label real estate. Unfortunately, consumer advocacy organizations were far too interested in fighting it out with industry to employ some imagination in the interests of the constituency they supposedly worked for. Now, with near-universal access to the Internet and UPC-reading smartphones, this technology is easier to put into place than ever.
So conventional labeling systems, with all their insurmountable problems endured. Over the years, like a growing Tower of Babel, labeling systems became more complex and even less understandable. To deal with that problem, the food 'authoritarians' decided to simplify the label and go another step further in eliminating intelligent consumer's choice. Simplified systems intended to drive the consumer directly to a specific choice - traffic lights, check marks, scores, medical society endorsements - began to appear - designed to eliminate thought and dispense with informed decision making. Again, not the slightest thought given to educating the consumer.
Into the fray steps the Institute of Medicine whose 175 page report now says that the problem is that there is too much information on the front-of-package label. They recommend cutting it back to just four items. All consumers really need to know about is calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
This latest IOM report comes on the heels of two related publications: 1) the Harvard study by Bernstein and Willet , which revealed that sodium consumption has not changed in 40 years, while the rate of hypertension has gone up considerably, and 2) the report at the Obesity Society annual meeting in San Diego showing that calorie labeling on the menu did not reduce calorie consumption in fast-food restaurants.
The first publication revealed that sodium is not related to the rise in hypertension, which was always the main reason that the IOM wants salt consumption reduced, while the second report revealed that calorie labeling had little effect on consumer choice.
Talk about being a day late and a dollar short!
The last week has brought a media frenzy to the debate over population-wide salt reduction thanks to the hypocritical and nonsensical campaign by NYC's Mayor Bloomberg and his administration. The Salt Institute has been in the center of the fray as we seek to get fair media coverage from folks who parrot inaccurate sound bites based on faulty science and a political agenda based on a "villain of the day" mentality. We are happy to report we have made great strides in getting out "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would say. SI staff appeared on CBS and Fox News, weighed in on approximately 20 interviews with print media and appeared on one national radio show and another large radio show in Miami (NYC's sixth borough).
In addition, the tide seems to be turning as the national sentiment is rejecting the nanny state mentality and seems keen on personal choice and liberty. There has been a shift in reporting on this issue since Bloomberg and company first publicly entertained the notion of population-wide sodium reduction one year ago. Perhaps our favorite editorial in the last week appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Smack is bad, but the crackdown is on salt by Eric Felten does a fine job of pointing out the lunacy of a city which teaches its residents how to properly shoot up heroin, but strong arms food producers into limiting sodium content. We, like Felten, join in a collective chorus of "huh?" John Stossel also did a fine job of making the case against government food nannies in this Fox News segment.
We are encouraged to see many rising up to fight back against nanny state public policy which ignores sound science. Fox News online ran a story "Restaurant chefs boiling over NYC Mayor's salt crackdown." And a new coalition has popped up to fight back: My Food. My Choice. is made up of businesses, restaurant owners and ethnic groups (they see the policy as an attack on ethnic cuisine) and consumers.
William Grimes book Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York , reviews the City's rich ethnic heritage evolving out of humble beginnings as Nieuw Amsterdam. He cites the increasing popularity of "ethnic" dining as the City's greatest achievement as a "food city."
By ironic coincidence, the book appeared a year ago, when the City launched an initiative that would eviscerate the sale of ethnic foods in Big Apple grocery outlets and decimate ethnic dining in the city. The health department, basing its campaign more on political correctness than sound science, is trying to persuade grocers and restaurateurs to provide shoppers and diners only low-sodium versions of the foods they love. Imagine a low-salt salt bagel. How about a corned beef on rye or hot pastrami? No, can't have that, they're cured in saltwater. Choose your favorite ethnic cuisine and you'll find it impossible to enjoy without salt; it's the quintessential ingredient in ethnic foods.
Literally millions of immigrants entered the US through New York City and, for example, there are 3.3 million Italian-Americans in the New York metro area and extensive number who themselves or whose families emigrated from Greece or other Mediterranean countries -- whose diet is deemed the healthiest in the world (pdf 592.83 kB) . Even though newly-reelected, I doubt Mayor Bloomberg wants to tell them to turn their back on their ethnic culinary heritage -- or encourage them to dine in Hoboken, Hempstead or Yonkers.
Over the past six months the public's priorities in food choices has shifted from "freshness, health and the environment" to "taste, price, healthfulness and convenience" according to dualing surveys, one by IPSOS and another by the International Food Information Council.
The IPSOS survey conducted six months ago and released June 11 was summarized by IPSOS Executive Vice President David Pring:
We are seeing a global consumer movement toward heightened consciousness of health, wellness and environmental factors in their food purchasing decisions....We are also seeing that taste, convenience and product difference – aspects that were probably more characteristic of food product drivers towards the end of the last millennium – are taking a back seat in a world now more focused on making a positive impact on freshness and health as well as the sustainability of the planet.
Wait a minute, IFIC would respond. Released slightly earlier, the 2009 IFIC survey concluded that, consistent with all past surveys, taste is the number one factor influencing food purchases, but price has increased steadily as the second most important factor. 87% of consumers consider taste to have some or great impact, price 74% (up from 64% four years ago), while healthfulness trails at 61% and convenience last of the four choices at 52%. Looking just at those who consider each factor of "great impact," taste is #1 with 53%, price next with 43% and healthfulness and convenience at 26%.
For ourselves, we see little evidence supporting the IPSOS headline that "Freshness, Health and the Environment Matter Most in the Kitchens of the World; Global Consumer Priorities Regarding Food Products Shift away from Taste, Convenience." Taste reigns!
What do you think?
Fearmongering prevails. Fearing their diets may mean risk of chronic disease, consumers seek to lower their risks by using "healthy" foods, whose unhealthy ingredients are reduced or eliminated. But is seems there is no escape: health conscious, label-reading food purchasers should be fearful, too according to Wall Street Journal Health section reporter Melinda Beck. Beck asks "What's really in many 'healthy' foods?" She answers using salt substitutes as an example where consumers are misled into thinking "healthy" confers some health benefit to them personally. Regarding salt substitutes, she explains:
If you're trying to cut down on salt, check with your doctor before you start using a salt substitute. Most contain potassium chloride, which can exacerbate kidney problems and interact badly with some heart and liver medications.
With only a bit more research, Beck could have noted the other "healthy" additives used to replace salt. Besides potassium chloride, salt replacers include calcium chloride, magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts) and various metal ion replacers as well as various other proprietary chemicals.
Food manufacturers also try to reduce the natural salt content of their foods by using "salt enhancers" that include: 5-ribonucleotides, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, inosine 5-monophosphate, 5'-guanidylic acid, glycine monoethyl ester, L-lysine, L-arginine, lactates, Mycosent, Trehalose, L-ornithine, Ornithyl-β-alanine, monosodium glutamate and Alapyridaine (N-(1-Carboxethyl)-6-hydroxymethyl-pyridinium-3-ol).
Salt is a natural bitterness inhibitor. To give "healthy" -- but bitter -- low-sodium foods acceptable taste, food producers sometimes replace salt with 2,4-dihydroxybenzoic acid. Now that's real "health food"!
Dietary salt's use in food is as Winston Churchill said about democracy being "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."