A couple of days ago Marion Nestle wrote about “Alcohol nutritional labeling a regulatory maze” in the SF Chronicle. First she sets up the straw man: “Q: I like to read nutritional information on the foods and beverages I consume. Why is there no such information on alcoholic beverages?” (I mean, honestly, do you really believe an actual person wrote in with that question?) And then she proceeds on a random walk through the maze of regulations, some contradictory, that currently govern what has to appear on alcoholic beverage labels. She finishes her piece by noting that TTB has punted for the time being on issuing final rulings on nutritional labeling for alcoholic beverages, and suggests that the attentive reader write their Congressional representative to urge the TTB to get moving.
Buried in the piece, Dr. Nestle describes the present-day convoluted labeling regulations as an “ absurd, consumer-unfriendly situation.” This raises the question — what consumer? How many of us are so obsessive over our food and wine that we actually read the nutritional panel on everything we purchase? I suspect the answer is: not many. I sure don’t see them in the market. Imagine how long it would take to shop if everyone were standing in the aisles reading nutrition labels before dropping things in their basket.
Obviously I’m being a bit hyperbolic. As I’m sure many do, I sometimes look at the nutrition panel and composition list. For example, I don’t react well to MSG and try to avoid buying processed foods that contain it. I’m also philosophically and politically opposed to Big Corn, so I avoid buying things containing high-fructose corn syrup (or the new consumer-friendly euphemism — “corn sugar”).
Two years ago I did a piece on “Mandatory Composition Labels” where I staked out my position on the issue for wine. In that piece I ask the question of whose interests are served by these labeling regulations. I noted:
“ it’s my opinion that mandating nutritional labels to address the public health problem of obesity is patently ludicrous. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, if nutritional labeling could curb people’s eating habits we should be seeing rates of obesity decline. They certainly are not. I think it is clear that as a culture we consume too much. The nutritional labeling mandates embody the explicit assumption that the informed consumer will consume less. This is a Pollyanna fantasy, that completely discounts the huge commoditized food industrial complex which spends billions on marketing in order to get us to consume more.”
Nothing has changed in the intervening years. If statistics are to be believed, the average American continues to get fatter despite having more nutritional information pushed at them every day. Nutritional labeling with a goal of reducing obesity and related health issues is a public policy failure of the first magnitude.
Regarding composition labeling, I continue to believe that “ people who may die from allergies to specific foodstuffs and additives absolutely must know what’s in what they are eating.” But I have yet to see any data whatsoever showing that people allergic to protein derived from peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat are being admitted to emergency rooms for allergic reactions after consuming alcoholic beverages.
Show me the data — let’s see actual evidence that there is a problem that needs to be — or that effectively can be — addressed by new labeling regulations. Dr. Nestle’s obsessive straw man notwithstanding.