Academic journal article American Journal of Law & Medicine

Transparency for Food Consumers: Nutrition Labeling and Food Oppression

Academic journal article American Journal of Law & Medicine

Transparency for Food Consumers: Nutrition Labeling and Food Oppression

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Transparency for consumers through nutrition labeling should be the last, not the first, step in a transformative food policy that would reduce dramatic health disparities and raise the United States to the health standards of other nations with similar resources. Nonetheless, transparency in the food system is a key focal point of efforts to improve health by providing consumers with necessary information to make good nutritional choices, as well as to achieve sustainable food chains and ensure food safety and quality.1 In fact, nutrition labeling on packaging and in restaurants is the centerpiece of policy designed to decrease obesity, a condition many health advocates consider to be the most urgent public health crisis of the twenty-first century.2 The resulting increased transparency about food ingredients has led to some changes in industry practices and allowed many middle- and upper-income consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase and consume. Unfortunately, however, research reveals that increased nutritional information does not improve health.

Most consumers do not use nutrition labeling to ameliorate their food choices, and those who do are already in good health. Further, low-income consumers who must select foods based entirely on availability and affordability derive few, if any, benefits from transparency. This is because their choices reflect structural conditions, not lack of information. Instead, transparency primarily benefits health-conscious, wealthier constituents as well as food corporations, which incur minimal costs from labeling in comparison to the expense that other, more impactful reforms would impose.

To eliminate or decrease socioeconomic and racial health disparities, structural changes that expand access to healthy food, regulate harmful food ingredients, and create opportunities for more active lifestyles are necessary. Therefore, to the extent that it replaces more meaningful structural reform, transparency's primacy in food policy deepens the health divide between wealthy and poor individuals, and between whites and other racial groups.3 The immediate goal of transparency in the food system should accordingly not be to provide consumers with information about food ingredients and processes, but to expose the partnerships between the food industry and the government that lead food policy to prioritize private profit over public health.

This paper begins by describing nutrition labeling requirements and the research on their effectiveness. It then explores the obstacles that prevent information provision from effecting positive change. It interrogates how alliances between the government and corporations lead to food oppression, which arises from facially neutral laws and policies that disproportionately harm socially subordinated groups, and examines how racial stereotypes and popular perspectives on health exacerbate these harms. It concludes by proposing new directions in food policy that would render transparency more useful for all consumers and reduce health disparities.

II. NUTRITION LABELING

Americans consume one third of their calories and spend half of their food budgets on food prepared outside the home.4 This practice of eating pre-packaged and restaurant food, particularly from fast food establishments, correlates with obesity and other indicators of poor health.5 In an attempt to improve the health outcomes associated with eating food cooked outside the home, Congress enacted Section 4205 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This provision requires chain restaurants to list the calorie content of their standard food and drink items on menus and menu boards,6 thereby ensuring that restaurant patrons receive information about menu items that overlaps with what manufacturers must display on packaged food products.7

Food manufacturers, under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), must include a label titled "Nutrition Facts," displaying the amount of calories, sugars, fat, saturated fat, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, fiber, and carbohydrates contained in a packaged food product. …

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