Does it Matter if Consumers Understand Food Labels?

I recently expressed my doubts about the power of food labels to empower consumers across the full range of ethical issues related to food. But, at least implicitly, I accepted that nutrition labelling is the exception, the obviously-empowering form of labelling. But of course, even that is too optimistic.

Here’s the story, by Sarah Schmidt, for Postmedia News: Health Canada survey suggests nutrition labels confuse consumers

Consumers are utterly confused by the nutrition facts table on the back of prepackaged foods meant to help shoppers make healthier food choices, a new Health Canada survey has found.

The government introduced mandatory nutrition labelling rules for all prepackaged foods in 2003 so consumers could make informed food choices, but focus groups have delivered a blunt message to Health Canada and the food industry. In addition to “virtually ignoring all the information on the right-hand column” that details what percentage of a day’s worth of nutrients the serving provides, “consumers are also perplexed by information relating to serving sizes, which often don’t seem to be realistic….”

Now, the fact that nutrition labels don’t work well doesn’t mean we should do away with them. There are two reasons why not. First is this: the fact that current labels don’t do a good job of informing consumers doesn’t mean that labeling in general is useless. It might just be that we need new, innovative labels. The second reason is that consequences aren’t all that matter in the world. Sometimes we provide things not because of the good outcomes they’ll produce, but because they protect or advance some important right. Now, whether or not consumers have a right to nutritional information is not a straightforward thing to figure out. (Rights don’t just spring into being from nowhere; they have to be grounded in the need to protect some important interest.) We’ll leave that argument for another day. For now, it’s just worth pointing out that labels (and other mechanisms) can be valuable for those 2 different reasons: either because they promote some good outcome, or because they fulfill some right.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in activism, consumerism, labeling, nutrition, values. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Does it Matter if Consumers Understand Food Labels?

  1. Anastasia says:

    What do you think about the NuVal scoring system? It boils everything down to one number so it’s a lot easier to say “I’ll take the bread with a score of 50 instead of the one with a score of 20” than to have to look at the ingredients, the nutritional scores, and so on. All you need to know is price and NuVal score. Even though I can understand the labels, I have to admit I like NuVal especially when I’m in a hurry.

    Great blog, by the way. Food ethics is a very complex subject, and I really appreciate the way you take science into account when discussing the ethics side of things.

  2. Anastasia:

    Good question! I haven’t looked at NuVal in detail yet. I plan to. Since I’m not an expert on nutrition, I’m going to blog about it soon strictly from an ethics point of view.

    (And thanks for the kind words about my blog. FYI, this blog is new, so most of what I’ve written about food ethics can actually be found over at my other blog, )


  3. Pingback: GM Foods and PLU Codes | The Food Ethics Blog

Comments are closed.