Food Warning Labels

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve discussed various schemes that have been proposed to limit the consumption of sugary beverages. As proponents of these measures note, there is compelling evidence that sugar-sweetened (nondiet) soft drinks play a unique role in the obesity epidemic, although they are certainly far from the only cause of obesity. But most major initiatives — special taxes on sugary beverages, as well as proposed limits on their serving size — have failed, as the beverage industry and some consumers rallied against them.

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While we can’t know how effective these measures might have been at reining in obesity, one recent study suggests that the effect of a sugary-beverage tax would be small. According to the study’s lead researcher, as quoted in an article at DoctorsLounge.com, both unawareness of the tax and indifference to it — as well as the wide range of high-calorie food items not covered — mean that such a tax would barely make a dent in the obesity rate. This differs from the effect of cigarette taxes on smoking rates; since smokers lack an easy alternative to highly taxed tobacco products, they are more likely to purchase fewer cigarettes or quit altogether rather than switch to an untaxed but similarly harmful product.

This comparison of sugary beverages to cigarettes raises an interesting question: What would happen to the rate of sugary-beverage guzzling — or, perhaps more importantly, overall sugar intake — if these products had warning labels similar to those on cigarettes? One less drastic alternative, already the law in some countries, would be to require the front of product labels to display certain nutrition information, such as the number of calories and the amount of fat and sugar in each serving. One recent study, however, found that these displays have little effect on consumers’ purchasing decisions. It stands to reason that an explicit statement of danger would be more difficult to ignore, and could act as a greater deterrent, than front-of-package nutrient labels. Yet another option from the cigarette playbook would be to require harmful foods and beverages to be sold in plain, generic packaging, as is required of cigarettes in Australia (and, soon, in New Zealand and Ireland). A bottle of soda may be less appealing if its label lacks the trademarks and symbols designed to imply that it is a fun, refreshing beverage.

What information would you like to see on the front of food and beverage labels? Would you support putting health warnings on certain foods and beverages? If so, what foods and beverages should be included? Should labeling and packaging requirements aim to steer consumers away from harmful products, or simply to give them the information they need to make educated decisions? Leave a comment below!

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