In last week's Economist, I read a piece about the measures in the U.S. to improve nutrition information on food packaging and to overhaul the USDA "food icon"—which has now been changed from the pyramid that people my age remember so fondly into a plate divided into vegetables and fruits, grains, protein, and a bit of dairy. (The plate does make much more sense.)
The pyramid-plate switchup was the least of the battles, apparently, as there's an effort underway to improve nutrition facts on the labels, as well as a knock-down drag-out fight on the horizon over imposing nutritional standards on which foods can be marketed to children (much, I imagine, like the rules about marketing tobacco products):
In 2005 the Institute of Medicine found that television advertising influenced young children to prefer unhealthy foods and drinks. In 2009 Congress asked a working group of four federal agencies to devise guidelines for food marketed to children. In April the agencies presented voluntary guidelines, at last. Their proposal would bar companies from advertising products to children that fail to meet strict nutritional standards. The guidelines would cover virtually all types of marketing, from television ads and video games to promotions in schools and supermarkets.
The food industry claims that its own campaign, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, has reduced junk-food ads and that few products would meet the government's standards. "Unworkable," Elaine Kolish, the initiative's director, says of the new guidelines. The fight may drag on. Congress originally asked the agencies to issue their recommendation by July 2010. Meanwhile, American children continue to gobble up sugar and fat. Nearly one-third of them are overweight or obese.
To be honest, I'm not sure how to think about all of the changes. Of course, we all know the best way to eat well is to eat a lot of plant matter, good clean protein, and whole grains. But the matter here is more about buying and selling. On the one hand, I can see the difficulties inherent in regulations around food packaging, especially for smaller manufacturers. On the other hand, free markets operate on the concept of symmetrical information, and neither the current nutrition facts label nor the food industry's attempt to preempt regulations by creating their own system have been a resounding success. And as a consumer, I want to know what I'm actually buying, not just what the producer would like me to think about it.