Even kids know that numbers aren't always the most important thing
Whistleblower at Goldman Sachs

The food labeling debate shows why paternalism is so offensive

Mark D. White

In this morning's New York Times, Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel writes about the presentation of nutritional labels on food packaging. He begins:

Research suggests that consumers spend only about one second looking at nutrition information when making myriad choices. A parent dashing through the grocery store aisles with kids in tow has to decide, in that one second, which is better: Triscuit vs. Saltines vs. Wheat Thins vs. Ritz? This is why Americans need a simple, standardized and truthful label on the front of all packaged foods.

These three sentences provide an excellent example of my main argument against paternalism: that it necessarily involves the state presuming a) to know the interests of its citizens and b) to take action to influence their behavior in those presumed interests.

Dr. Emanuel cites evidence that consumers spend (on average?) one second looking at nutritional information while shopping for food. He doesn't cite the study, so I can't know the details. I'm curious, though, if it covers all food purchases, even those the consumer has made previously (perhaps after a careful investigation of the nutritional details of each option), which would take little time, while new comparisons involved more time. I wonder also if it gauged the "quality" of the choices made after the one second spent reading the labels--were the decisions made judged to be faulty, or was the one second spent on reading labels taken as evidence that they were?

Regardless, Dr. Emanuel judges this one second to be insufficient, based on some conception of consumers' interests, and concludes that they "need" a better labeling system. Much of the rest of the piece describes the government's attempts to negotiate a new labeling system with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as well as the insufficiency of private initiatives toward the same end.

I wonder if he has considered that the (average) one second spent analyzing nutritional information may very well represent the optimal choice of consumers acting in full knowledge of their own interests. Certainly there is always a possibility of cognitive bias and dysfunction influencing these decisions--they may irrationally discount the value of careful analysis of nutritional information, or simply be lazy--but this cannot be inferred from the length of time spent reading the labels. Instead, someone had to judge that one second is not enough--a judgment which is then used to justify paternalistic action to influence individuals' decisions.

Later in the piece, when arguing for a simple labeling scheme, Dr. Emanuel insults consumers:

What we need are simple, standardized icons that can be understood by a shopper in a second or less, located in a consistent place on all packages. No higher math or advanced nutrition knowledge should be required to grasp the icons’ meaning. The information should reflect real serving sizes (canned soup labels regularly give the amount of salt for just half the can, trying to disguise that a whole can contain almost an entire day’s intake of salt). And we should have interpretive symbols telling shoppers simply whether an item is healthy or unhealthy.

Apparently, consumers cannot be trusted to turn the package around to find the nutritional information; to understand the terms "fat" and "sodium"; to understand what "50% of recommended daily allowance" means; or that when the package contains two servings, the numbers must be doubled. In the end, they need icons (maybe smiley, frowny, and angry faces) to drive the point home that "this food good, that food bad." I'm not saying the current presentation of nutritional information is perfect--but if consumers are dissatisfied with it, they will demand improvements.

Near the end of the piece, Dr. Emanuel writes:

After waiting a year, it seems pretty clear that we can’t trust the G.M.A. to do the right thing by the American consumer. When industry fails to voluntarily police itself, then it may just be time for regulation. But regulations require extensive research as well as hard-to-come-by agreement on the effectiveness of interpretive symbols, on the design of the symbols themselves and on the formula to be used to define how healthy each item is. All that will take at least two years, and will most likely be harder on the industry over all. A voluntary government-industry agreement is the better path.

The reason the G.M.A. will not do the "right thing" by American consumers is that they do not presume to know what the "right thing" is for them. Instead, they present the consumer with options (in hopes of earning a profit) and the consumer chooses among them (in hopes of satisfying their own interests). If consumers signal through those choices that they want different labels, or more low-fat options, or gluten-free foods, then it will be in manufacturers' interests to provide them. Paternalist regulators, on the other hand, presume to know the true interests of consumers without understanding the reasons behind their choices, and then take it upon themselves to manipulate choices based on them. (And don't get me started on the notion of a "voluntary government-industry agreement," given the regulatory power of the FDA.)

I don't doubt that Dr. Emanuel's heart is in the right place; paternalism is often motivated by sincere concern for the well-being of others. But that concern must also be tempered by respect and humility: respect for the choices of individuals about whose well-being the paternalist knows very little. Dr. Emanuel may think that Twinkies are a poor food choice--so do I! I don't think anyone believes they're a healthy option. But neither of us has the right to tell other people they can't eat them, or to use the power of the state to influence their choices in the direction we think they should go.

"Let them eat cake," she said--even processed, simulated cake product--and let them bear the consequences as well.


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"...which is better: Triscuit vs. Saltines vs. Wheat Thins vs. Ritz?"

None, really. Anything in a box that has a label on it (side, back, or front) probably isn't that great for you. We all know fruit is healthy and chips aren't, but a angry face* on the front of the bag isn't going to stop me from buying Cheetos.

*Love the image

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