Longer Labels: The Extended Case for Warnings on our Food.

food warning label pizza

Last month the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) made headlines when its president, Dr. Doug Weir, proposed a number of so-termed ‘radical’ new measures meant to combat what he called “the epidemic of obesity” in Canada.  Obesity needs combatting “aggressively” and “immediately,” he continued, recommending, among other things, raising taxes and mandating graphic warning labels on high calorie foods with low nutritional value.  While a tax increase is being considered, the graphic warning labels have so far proved the most incendiary of the recommendations, with claims that they are excessively grotesque and unfairly vilify specific foods, or even the baffling assertion that graphic warning labels are ineffective in general.

Now, I don’t agree with additional taxes, but I think that the OMA’s concern over the increasing proportion of overweight Canadians is valid, and that junk food warning labels might be just what Ontario needs to fight the manipulative and overreaching food industry.

Before we do anything else, let’s get rid of this higher taxes idea.  The argument against further taxing junk food is that it hits the poorer demographics.  Many people buy cheap, unhealthy food because it’s cheap, not because it’s unhealthy.  It’s been said that this kind of tax hits lower-income families hardest, and I believe it.

Furthermore, a similar tax targeting fatty foods  was introduced in Denmark a little over a year ago, and its discontinuation was announced a little over a month ago.  We could talk about this further, but I don’t think there’s any need to.  The arguments against it are strong, and if the Danes tried and failed at it, that should be all the proof we need.cigarette warning

It’s true, however, that there are an extraordinary number of overweight Canadians. Statistics Canada reports that about 60 percent of Canadians are either overweight or obese, with obesity up ten percent since the 1980s. And the caramel apple doesn’t fall far from the stall, either: just over 31% percent of Canadian children are overweight or obese compared to 14% in the 1980s.

Okay, so the OMA can credibly claim that obesity in Canada is bad–maybe bad enough even to let its president get away with saying “pussyfooting around” on national television. But even more interesting than the severe language of the conspicuously lean Dr. Weir was a part of his proposed solution: a series of mock-up warning labels flanking the podium. Modeled after tobacco warnings, the two most attention-getting graphics respectively featured troubling images of a bloated liver and an open sore on a small foot, accompanied by text identifying them as possible consequences of poor diets. They’re pretty gruesome, admittedly–which is the OMA’s not-so-veiled intent.  Sometimes a little controversy asks big questions.

Before we go further, it bears clarifying that this isn’t about shaming the overweight. That happens quite enough already, and it would be incorrect to claim that overweight people are necessarily unhealthy, just as not all skinny people are necessarily in shape. It’s a perception, and, like a lot of them, it’s an oversimplification.

Which, incidentally, is something I found positive about the mock-ups: unlike a certain public broadcaster, they don’t stoop to showing anyone with a big belly or a succession of chins. Instead, they show isolated body parts affected by specific afflictions that can result from a sustained unhealthy diet.

mock-up of food warning labelsI can understand the outrage sparked by the notion of decorating lunch box snacks with diabetic ulcers, but I also think that the box of juice is a can of worms, and there’s more to this than just the idea of kids being exposed to gore–after all, ultra-violent movies have been pushing that envelope for decades. Instead, I see an important cultural element at play. I think that a good part of the repulsion comes from experiencing a brazen style of marketing totally at odds with what marketing strategies have become.

Food marking is a peculiar business to start with, because, as noted by Slashfood.com, “nearly 80 percent of food ads […] are for foods of poor nutritional quality.” And how do you advertise food that’s not worth eating?

Well, the usual strategies would be misconception and misdirection.  It’s not common (nor legal) to lie outright about your product, but while food advertising rarely lies, it is often leading. Misconceptions are encouraged by way of purposefully deceptive strategies that, in my opinion, we as a society have acquired a bit of a taste for.

I offer as an example the freshly-cut ingredients and painted-to-look-delicious burgers that are the standard fare of fast food commercials. We know we’re not getting tomatoes cut for us when we order, nor are we disappointed when our burger is flatter and more pallid than its T.V. counterpart, because we know the advertised product isn’t representative of the real thing. We might not know that some quasi-healthy products such as fast-food chain smoothies contain as much sugar (syrup) as any carbonated sugary drink on the market or that when Cola-Cola’s Vitamin Water was challenged for deceptive advertising overstating its health benefits, Coke’s lawyers maintained that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitamin Water was a healthy beverage.” But maybe we’re less surprised than we should be.

Coke: Open HappinessCoke advertisements are never about sugar and caramel colour, or any of the product’s tangible properties; instead, they feature polar bears, Father Christmas, and assemblies of young, attractive, thirsty people clad conspicuously in red as they smile and laugh with unsettling regularity.  In fact, one need look no further than Coke’s current slogan: “open happiness.”

McDonald’s is another example. McDonald’s’ ads are chock full of the young and the mirthful, and even a cursory analysis of their recent slogans (“Put a Smile On,” “There’s a little McDonald’s in everyone,” “I’m lovin’ it”) reveals a tendency towards broadly positive phrases that focus on the joy the product brings rather than the product itself–a strategy mirroring Coke’s.

It’s not as though we are deluded enough to think a bottle of Coke is a bottle of distilled contentment, but these corporations collectively spend billions of dollars a year telling us exactly that, and some part of that sticks.

So how does this relate to labels?  Well, frankly, because the labels are ugly, and we never see ‘ugly’ in food advertising.  Our food advertising has for so long been so unrelentingly positive that a public reaction upon seeing anything else represented is unsurprising.  The OMA isn’t really out of line though: these warning labels picture nothing more than the unglamorous possible consequences of bad diets, and if they’re vulgar, well, it’s because they’re real.

Most importantly, it’s just another conversation–one that I feel is lacking.  It’s a way to talk baldly about food we’re so used to seeing sugarcoated. Graphic warning labels aren’t meant to restrict consumer choice, they’re just messages that interrogate the overwhelmingly positive imagery these corporations spend so much to craft.

caution: junk foodAnother outspoken critic of the labels is Derek Nighbor, Vice President of Food and Consumer Products Canada, who censures the OMA for “demonising individual products and certain categories, and … ignoring the overall balanced diet message, which I think is seriously irresponsible.”

Now, this argument is worth considering because he’s both right and wrong at the same time.  He’s right because, to paraphrase from Dr. Tony Gabriel’s interview on CBC’s Crosstalk, there is no such thing as an ‘unhealthy’ food–rather, it is diets that become unhealthy. Habitually eating highly-processed foods nutrient-poor foods over long periods of time is unhealthy.

It’s wrong to isolate certain foods as bad, Gabriel notes, in reality, nothing in excess is healthy. Balance, moderation, compromise–I’m sure we’re all familiar with these terms, and they all apply.

Unfortunately, Nighbor has neglected to read the labels, which contain a distilled version of this message.  The OMA fingers no food specifically as ‘unhealthy.’

Like Nighbor, critics are mostly directing their tirades at the uncomfortable pictures, but the accompanying messages are both direct and appropriate. They warn against ‘excessive’ consumption: they are not ‘nevers’, they are ‘not oftens.’

Finally, I’ve seen it claimed, as by Emile Therien of the Toronto Star that “there is no compelling evidence, nor has there ever been, to show that warning labels will have any effect in preventing or stopping people, and especially young adults, from smoking, eating junk food or abusing alcohol.”

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this argument because it’s a wrong argument. Canada was the first country in the world to legislate graphic warning labels on cigarettes, and it has been proven that as a result Canada’s smokers are more aware of the health risks of smoking, as well as more likely to want to quit.

It’s no surprise that long-time smokers continue to do so, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the labels act as a deterrent to new smokers. They are ugly and they have helped mobilize the general populace to no longer let smokers get away with it. PC blue menuHistorically, good marketing made cigarettes ‘cool’, but recent health-conscious regulations have made sure their dangers are recognized as well.

Obviously, differences abound between cigarettes and junk foods. It’s easy to put warnings on cigarettes because cigarettes are poison, but there are a bounty of nutrient-poor options in our grocery stores, and as there are important differences in the foods we categorize as “unhealthy,” implementing a label system must be very well thought out. Which foods would be picked, for example, and on what grounds? Would it be one similarly designed label on all junk food, as we have with cigarettes,  or some sort of visual cue like the distinctive hue of the PC’s Blue Menu? These are all important considerations, and none of them easily answered. But before we even consider implementing them, we have to stop fighting about them.

Many have disparaged these proposed warning labels as the clumsy elitism of a moralizing organization: it has been said that they will restrict access to junk foods, frighten our children, and shame overweight Canadians, and, as such, constitute an unacceptable attack on our basic freedoms.

But that’s not what this is about.

This is about countering rising obesity rates in Canada–rampant among young children–in the face of aggressively positive marketing.  The over-consumption of poor-quality foods is heartily encouraged by a billion-dollar industry well-versed in spinning bad foods into gaiety.  Graphic warning labels will simply help to reconcile the difference between a given product’s marketing and the product itself.  And that’s really what this is all about, isn’t it? Balance?

Well, let’s promote a balanced media diet that complements a balanced alimentary one. Let’s take some of the refined sugary language out of this, and challenge some of the highly processed claims.

Let’s do what we need to do. Let’s put a label on it.

Reference: Linn, Susan. Buy, Buy Baby: Consuming Kids.  New York: Random House Inc, 2005. Print.


Paul Craig is a three-and-a-half-year half-Canadian half-major MIT hopeful. Should he finally graduate he’d prefer absurd pay for word play, but fears it’s as unlikely as him finally graduating.

One thought on “Longer Labels: The Extended Case for Warnings on our Food.

  1. Pingback: Week 6 Semiotics | visualcomblog

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