The quote, “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside,” has been credited to Mark Twain. There is, however, no credible evidence that the famous author and humourist ever said it. Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The term “mark twain” refers to the second mark on a line used to measure the depth of the Mississippi River. It relates to 12 ft., a safe depth for passage of a steamboat.
This is fascinating stuff, but how does this relate to food? For one, the fight over food has shifted from the belly (inside) to the brain (outside). This then begs the question as to whether the brain is actually better at understanding food than the belly. Which in turn brings up the second important question, are we feeding our brains with the right kind of information for it to be smart about food?
Being smart about food involves eating healthy and sustainably. If those goals are to be achieved, it means the brain has to digest quite a bit of information. That can be overwhelming and conflicting at times. For example, what do consumers know about “best before” dates (BBD)? A BBD is defined in the Food and Drug Regulations as the durable life of the food, which in the case of a prepackaged food means, “the period, commencing on the day on which a prepackaged product is packaged for retail sale, during which the product, when it is stored under conditions appropriate to that product, will retain, without any appreciable deterioration, its normal wholesomeness, palatability, nutritional value and any other qualities claimed for it by the manufacturer.” Obviously, it is a measure of the qualitative aspect of food, not its safety!
One reason consumers might not fully appreciate BBD is the lack of consistent messaging. On the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website, for example, the agency notes that, “You can buy and eat foods after the ‘best before’ date has passed.” In contrast, “Health Canada recommends that you not consume unopened food products that have passed their best before date.” So what is a consumer to believe? On a positive note, BBD have received much media coverage in 2015, which in general has brought more awareness to the matter. For the brain to relate to BBD it also requires a better understanding of the food itself. Bread past its BBD might be stale but safe to consume or repurpose into bread crumbs, whereas other foods of neutral acidity, high water activity or without barriers like preservatives, might prompt a more conservative approach. Achieving the goal of sustainability also means not unnecessarily disposing of food.
Nutrition information has been a mandatory feature on most Canadian food labels since 2005. Calorie and sugar information is part of the core list of information. The June 2015 proposed regulations would, if finalized, enhance the display of calories and require a per cent daily value for sugar. Ontario also introduced legislation in 2015 which is to come into force Jan. 1, 2017 that would require, with some exceptions, restaurant menus and menu boards to display calorie information for standard menu items. In contrast British Columbia has a voluntary “Informed Dining” nutrition information program. Consumers have been exposed to nutrition information for at least the past decade. Yet in Canada the obesity rate as per Statistics Canada has increased 17.5 per cent since 2003. One quarter of Canadians are now obese. The question is, why have rates risen in the presence of increasing exposure to nutrition information?
Current food labelling modernization philosophies suggest we need even more information, such as the greater prominence of calorie information in a nutrition facts table. Is this alone going to reduce the trend? On the surface it would appear we have done better without such information. However, obesity rates have been on the rise in Canada since 1981. Good decision making is founded on quality information. It’s the relationship to the information that seems to be the obstacle. Based on past experience, information alone without understanding is not going to make consumers smart about foods.
The Mark Twain story illustrates that to gain a better appreciation and context requires an investment in understanding. There is a whole congregation of other food labelling-related topics that the brain has been struggling with, mainly because there is so much misinformation, particularly online and in social media. The brain is easily overtaken by emotions like fear, despite clear evidence on the contrary. Perhaps the belly, not the brain after all, should decide food matters.
Food labelling modernization will continue to evolve in 2016. A great deal of effort is being made to provide relevant and understandable information on food labels, yet the biggest challenge to being smart about foods is the abundance of misinformation clouding good decision making. If governments are serious about achieving healthy and sustainable food goals through food information, they will need to mark their twain to effectively address this misinformation phenomenon.
Gary Gnirss is a partner and president of Legal Suites Inc., specializing in regulatory software and services. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org