More Than Labels

Every can. Every box. Every jar. Every bag. No matter the packaging, if it’s something to eat, there’s a nutrition label stuck on it.

Besides the food pyramid, food labels were probably one of the first visual representations introduced to me when learning about nutrition. Learning about what all the names and numbers mean, the “good” and the “bad.” Imagine me using air quotes for those measures of goodness since those ideas of goodness can drive so many down the spiral of counting grams and calories and dieting.

The FDA made a decision last year to update the twenty-plus-year-old nutrition label we’ve grown so accustomed to, revamping it to better reflect today’s nutritional concerns. The number of calories will be bigger and bolder, taking out the “calories from fat.” Companies will detail any added sugars, natural and artificial. Nutrients like Vitamin D and Potassium will have greater emphasis over other common vitamins like C and A.

I’m not saying it’s bad that the FDA is updating labels to continue informing consumers about what is in their food. We should be conscious of what is more nutritionally dense or dilute. My concern is if, and if so, how, new nutrition labels might affect where our focus goes.

Fads are always coming and going. Food that is “dangerous” can become suddenly “healthy” the next. It’s hard to look objectively at nutrition depending on the lens you use. Whether it’s the diet industry spewing out a new trendy lifestyle every other day, or it’s morning news talk shows relying upon sketchy scientific studies to judge nutrition, people are spun and pulled in so many directions, I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical. In fact, we need more critical thinking in the media and messages we’re exposed to.

But food is personal. There’s always a hint of self-doubt whenever I discuss veganism or eating disorder recovery because people very often have emotional attachment to food. We associate food with comfort and belonging and celebration, and also discomfort and anxiety and obsession. Food tips the scale (no pun intended) toward emotional poles and rarely do we think of food for what it is: fuel. Energy. Necessary for life.

The one aspect I especially don’t care for with the new labels is the apparent emphasis on calories. It makes it even easier to just look at a number and assume choosing the option with the lowest number is best, disregarding what nutrients are within those calories. In an ideal world, I would just include the vitamins, minerals, and macro nutrients and throw the calorie count out the window. Simple calorie counting is far too simplistic considering how your unique body uses energy. Choosing a random calorie limit and fitting your meals within tight restraints just sounds like a recipe (pun intended) for disaster.

And yet even knowing how bad yo-yo dieting and diet-focused products are, people still get sucked in. I think without that influence from society, being aware of what’s in your food is great. I don’t want to seem too critical and say that all nutrition labels are bad. We should be conscious and aware of what we put into our bodies. But I think individuals also need to be more aware of themselves and their intentions when referring to a nutrition label.

Ultimately, the changes the FDA are making aren’t too drastic. Anybody can change a font size. I fear more about how people respond to it. Or don’t. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. Regardless, the underlying message here is that we need to just keep talking about and questioning how we view and judge food. Our societal perspective right now is leading to commonplace disordered eating habits. New nutrition labels won’t change that. It just leads to more questions wondering what’s truly important or not.

Do I think it’s much better and easier to simply eat whole, plant-based foods that never have labels on them to begin with? Absolutely. But that’s not realistic for lots of people, and that discredits some really great brands and products out there.

There’s more to this nutrition label update than meets the surface. This is a great opportunity to talk about marketing and perceiving food, to talk about what a healthy relationship with food looks like. FDA, don’t just give us a new layout for what I still find a not-so-ideal representation of wellness. Give us a reminder of detaching guilt and fearing fats or carbs. Teach us to discourage the diet industry. Lead an example of how to adopt a philosophy that nurtures health in all aspects.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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