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Home > Politics

Warning: May Contain Nutrition

12 February 2006

The difference between a problem and a crisis is a matter of labelling. The persistent and myriad effects of obesity have slowly coagulated to form a crisis proper, and as such is provoking action on behalf of the people who are held partially responsible. On Thursday, Danone, Kellogg's, Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo all agreed to conform to a new labelling scheme for food products. Crisps, chocolate and cereals are to bear new printed info alerting consumers to their nutritional value and calorific content. Given that these boxes already exist, and a cursory glance at most cereal packaging already reveals some claim that these crusty little flakes provide 30% of your RDA of something or other, it seems less like progress and candour and more like very little, very grudgingly.

Also, given that the Food Standards Agency has been beavering away trying to draw up unifying industry guidelines for labelling, the big five's new system is being seen as a bit of a political feint. (Having followed their own spanking new dietary guidelines, they're limber enough to do that, obviously.) The FSA is still chewing over a 'traffic-light' system, with simple colour coding flagging up what's healthy and what's likely to send you hurtling towards heart disease and thrombosis. This is all well and good, but the whiff of the ineffectual and the pong of impervious profiteering are wafting around in equal quantities. The FSA can only recommend their traffic light system, so companies will be free to disregard it. Those that do sign up however, as well as those behind Thursday's agreement, will be keen to be perceived as the honorable altruistic fat-
fighters of the food industry. If they willingly tell us exactly how much crap is in their product, it's obviously because they care. But in reality, everyone knows that you can cram Bakewell tart into your cakehole till Channel Five make a documentary about you, but still Mr Kipling won't shed a tear. Besides which, there will be men - *top* men - working round the clock as we speak to ensure that any potential loss of earnings due to increased awareness of health risks is offset tenfold. They won't go down without a fight.

However, they may not even have to fight, because the fact is, *people like junk*. With the calorie remaining the only reliable unit of measure for the tastiness of food, on-packet health alerts will only make it easier for the orally-fixated masochist in each and every one of us to get our gratification. Especially those of us who wre previously unaware that a Hot Fudge Fantasti-Dough pudding is not quite as healthy as, say, a carrot. Intercepting the strong instinctive drive to cram unhealthy food is a hell of a task - we human beings crave fats, because they're the stuff of life, and stickers will do little to avert thousands of years of lard-ingesting evolution. In reality, we already know that sausages and pies are bad for us, as are fags and booze, but the fact is, we like them.

The more warnings there are on foodstuffs, of course, the easier it is to write the whole thing off as more governmental nannying. Ironically, it's almost the opposite of that - it's attempting to hand control and responsibility over to people so that they may make their own minds up. But the ubiquity of inherent danger tends to flatten out into a background hum. We're already used to seeing the drinkaware stamp on all posters for booze, and those funny little notices that say 'enjoy Tia Maria/Malibu/generic lurid pish responsibly'. These are almost goads to do precisely the opposite, especially to certain consumers who still delight in childish transgression of the mooning variety. As for the new 'Treatwise' system for chocolate - the suggested 30 minutes of exercise per humble bar of Dairy Milk hardly seems worth it, when you could sit in front of the TV and eat Dairy Milk instead. You can't induce willpower in people, at least not with equivocal wheedlings about what you should do to earn this privilege that you've been enjoying scot-free for years.

New labelling systems to tackle obesity smack of fighting Moby Dick with a safety pin, but in combination with an onslaught of education, they may have some positive effect. At the moment there's still little more than guilt trips and Gillian McKeith on hand to help. The parallels between overeating and indulgence in other substances are obvious, so we can only hope this doesn't descend into a War on Nosh, with the appointment of a Stodge Czar. In the meantime, we're going to make the most of our unlabelled produce and gorge ourselves on Nutella, before we have to face the fact that we're killing ourselves in a really slow and pleasurable way.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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