The180·The 180

Food labelling doesn't change how you eat. But here's why it persists

The rationale for food labelling goes something like this: people need to change the way they eat, and to do that, they need easier-to-understand food labels. But Omri Ben-Shahar says labelling has failed to change behaviour, yet it is often the policy of choice because it's cheap and expedient.

Be honest, you want to eat this don't you?

Now be a bit more honest, if this cremeschnitte came with nutritional information that told you it had 4g of protein per serving — would that make a difference? Or would you just inhale it and contemplate a second helping? 

For most of us, Omri Ben-Shahar says, studies show nutrition labelling has little impact on eating habits.  He says having more accurate information does not have much sway in how people decide what they are going to eat.  

Most of us, when we have a cremeschnitte for dessert ... know that it's probably not that good for us, even if that knowledge isn't quantified by the numbers on that label.- Omri Ben-Shahar

That might be surprising, given the push for different kinds of food labelling, or even labelling that uses language that is easier to understand

But Ben-Shahar, a law and economics professor at the University of Chicago, says food labelling is often a policy of choice because it doesn't require much investment, political parties of all stripes will agree to it, and it still fulfills the expectation from the public to act against a growing obesity epidemic. 

A nutrition facts label on a box of cookies. (Kelly Crowe/CBC)

Even more problematically, he says, it overlooks the factors that contribute to how people purchase and consume food. 

If people are eating unhealthy food due to a lack of will power or commitment, Ben-Shahar says there's little that government policy can do to help. 

But if people are choosing food that is lacking in nutrition because they can't access healthy food, or they don't have the resources to do so, then those are issues that could be addressed by policy-makers.

These are problems that require much more thorough and profound solutions than just an improved format for the label.- Omri Ben-Shahar


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