I no longer much care about food labels

News today about a proposal to change food labeling rules reminds me of a long-ago peeve of mine.

More than 20 years ago, I got word from my doctor that my cholesterol was elevated. I responded by changing my diet to reduce my fat consumption. That led to reading a lot of food labels, which led to observing that a lot of manufacturers were gaming the system by manipulating portion sizes.

The specific example that served as patient-zero for my peeve was a brand of sliced cold cuts that advertised itself as “fat-free.” Their justification for that was slicing their smoked chicken and turkey into slices so small they had less than half a gram of fat, which they could then round to zero—and then calling one paper-thin slice a serving. With “zero” grams of fat per “serving,” they were “fat-free.”

Now, I was a bit torn. I mean, portion control is a legitimate part of eating a good diet, and I was willing to accept the idea that one thin slice—perhaps torn up on top of a chef’s salad—might be a serving. I was totally down with supporting, even encouraging, people to make that choice.

On the other hand, when I used that lunch meat to make a sandwich, I used 8 or 10 slices—and had no idea how much fat I was eating. I could assume it was pretty close to 5 grams, but I would have really liked to have a more accurate figure.

My own preferred solution would have been to put the total fat content of the whole package on the label. Then if I used half or a third of the package to make a sandwich, I’d just have to divide by two or three to get a reasonably accurate figure.

That idea never seemed to get much consideration. Finally now the new rules move us some ways toward that, at least in categories where everybody knows that people consume a whole package. For example, soda companies will no longer be able to pretend that a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains two and a half 8-ounce servings.

What surprised me about the whole thing is that, although I remember caring deeply about this 20 years ago, I’m over it. I scarcely even look at food labels any more.

Part of the reason is that I’ve outsourced the label-checking to Jackie, but probably the bigger part is that a whole lot less of what I eat even has a label any more, because I eat a lot less in the way of manufactured edible products. (Strangely, food often doesn’t come with a food label. It’s the food-like products that get the food labels.)

Still, it’s good that people are paying attention to this. My label-based efforts to reduce fat consumption were effective: I brought my cholesterol down, and have kept it down for 20 years. It would have been a lot harder without the labels. Better labels would have helped more.

Even now I make use of the labels, although not so much the content of the label. Now that I’ve observed that food tends not to have labels, the presence of a label is a good, quick way to spot that I’m dealing with a manufactured food-like substance. (And I do eat them, I just try to make them a small part of my diet.)

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