In the beginning, there were no food labels, only the earth and the sky. But God wanted more, so on the third day He said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so.
Editor’s Note: This month, the USDA introduced new dietary guidelines, and a group of grocery manufacturers introduced a new food label – a front-of-the-package label that shoppers cannot possibly ignore. Will this make any difference in the childhood obesity rate? Will parents be any more willing to cook a nutritious meal from real food, and not from a box? Kimberly Lord Stewart spent two years researching this topic from the inside of the box to the outer packaging, for her book Eating Between the Lines. Here’s her synopsis of how far we’ve come.
On the fifth day, God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” And it was so.
On the sixth day, God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” It was so, and God saw that it was good. Man ate whatever God and the land provided … and nobody got fat. Man was healthy and lean … but hungry (Thousand of years later, this became known as the Paleo Diet).
Then the serpent invented advertising and marketing, and Eve was ill prepared to resist. So she plucked the apple from the tree of life, ate it, and shared it with Adam. God wasn’t pleased, to say the least.
“Cursed is the ground because of you,” he reportedly said. “Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.”
So Adam and Eve plowed and toiled as God said, which turned out to be a pretty good thing because they were fit and trim. (This later became known at the 3-a-Day Apple Diet – lose five pounds in five days!)
But a great darkness fell upon the land … or at least it seems like it because it took eons (until the 13th century) before the King of England decreed the first regulations and labels for food. The decree, called the Assize of Bread and Ale, regulated the size, quality and price of bread and beer, and forever-changed food pricing … and the ass-sizes of the Western world. Peas and beans were forbidden as acceptable grains for bread making, and ale prices were based on city and town limits. Obesity and malnutrition were born. (This later became known as the low-fat diet, which led to diabesity, the first portmanteau in medical vocabulary. What’s a portmanteau? ... think Brangelina.)
Then, in the 1800s, President Abraham Lincoln launched the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Chemistry, which eventually begat the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture, two brother agencies close in proximity but as far apart in policy as the North and South during Lincoln’s Civil War (See Cain and Abel).
Soon thereafter, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which said America’s meat-packing industry was really not good (cesspools of bacteria and diseased, rotten and adulterated meat).
Everyone said “Yuck and Amen! Finally a truth teller!”
From then on thousand of acts, rulings and laws attempted to clean up and influence how food is grown, processed and labeled.
This wasn’t so good, though. In fact, in 1990 the secretary of health and human services, Louis Sullivan, declared that consumers needed to have a degree in “linguistics, food science and mind reading,” to understand these “Towers of Babel.”
To quell the mayhem, behold, the modern-day food-labeling panel on food packaging was born. A blue-ribbon panel deemed 2,400 calories as the national caloric standard for adult males (Eve was left out, it seems). Ketchup was granted notable status as a school-lunch vegetable. Trans-fats were declared free of saturated fats and good for one’s heart. Anything with oat bran was labeled healthy. And super-size soft drinks, that could quell the thirst of a small village in Africa, become the single-size norm.
And the snack-food industry saw that it was good.
Then, alas, it came to pass that a host of health claims emerged promising to cure, mitigate or prevent every disease known to modern man and woman, including cancer, diabetes and the dreaded menopause disease.
God (or rather His proclaimed representatives in the government) sent forth the health-claim police upon the land, declaring that only the FDA could sheriff health claims. This begat the Health Claims Report Card (a little ahead of its time), which looked much like today’s Homeland Security Alert System, but was never adopted. Still, Americans did learn the meaning of low-fat, high fiber, cholesterol free, high protein and low carb.
And Dr. Atkins saw that it was good.
The New Testament of Food Labels (abridged)
In the Year of Our Food 2011:
• a new front-of-the-package food label is launched
First Lady Michelle Obama tells children and families, “Let’s Move!”
Sarah Palin says, “Less government control and more s’mores, please!”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, crosses party lines, telling Palin, “This is not good Sarah.”
Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
General Mills launches a blueberry pomegranate cereal that contains no blueberries or pomegranates.
Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsak promises a compromise for genetically modified alfalfa and organic farmers, but delivers unregulated GM- alfalfa
It’s discovered that Taco Bell tried to turn ground-up filler into all-beef tacos
The EPA sets guidelines for the amount of rocket-fuel allowed in drinking water.
It is so, and many of us are still confused about what is good.
For the real low-down on food labels, check out Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels (St. Martin’s Press, 2007). Follow and friend the blog at www.eatingbetweenthelines.net.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is an award-winning investigative food reporter, the former editorial director of Functional Ingredients magazine, and the author of Eating Between the Lines, The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide To The Truth Behind Food Labels.Complete bio.