Should junk foods carry warning labels?

Should junk foods carry warning labels?

There is, of course, stuff we can chew and swallow that isn’t food. Play-Doh comes to mind. As does Silly Putty.

My thoughts turned to those substances, among others, when my friends at Time magazine asked me recently to opine on the suggestion that junk foods should carry warning labels. My first inclination was: No, that’s too much. But then it dawned on me: Is anything that is a legitimate candidate for a warning label a food in the first place?

I looked up the definition of food, and the first one I found was this: “Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” That in turn implies that non-nutritious substances that, say, gum up our coronary arteries, pad our adipocytes, or rot our teeth might not qualify.

So, in some ways, a warning label on a food would be like a warning label on a computer that says: “Not to be used for computing.” So how can it be a computer? Or a label on a car indicating it is, “Not suitable for transportation.” Well, then — is it a car? You see where I’m going.

The suggestion about warning labels came at the World Health Organization’s 67 World Health Assembly. The case was made that junk food is even more damaging to public health today than tobacco, and that warning labels should be posted accordingly on the implicated foods.

The argument that junk food (whatever, exactly, that is) does more damage globally than tobacco is far more defensible than it may at first seem. As far back as 1993, we knew that the combination of eating badly and lack of physical activity was just behind tobacco on the list of leading causes of premature death (and chronic disease) in the United States. When the analysis that produced that original list was repeated a decade later, that gap had narrowed — due both to less smoking, and ongoing neglect of both feet and forks, with worsening epidemics of obesity and diabetes to show for it.

Related studies have been published with regularity ever since, showing again and again and again, in populations around the globe — that eating badly and inactivity are exacting an enormous toll. Both have now been implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease worldwide. So that case can be closed.

What, then, of warning labels?

Well, the libertarians among us, and that portion of libertarian in all of us, are likely inclined to balk. In fact, the balking began before ever the talking on the subject had concluded. The basic gist here is this: “Don’t tell me what to eat!” And, of course, resistance to intrusions by Big Brother inevitably invite slippery-slope paranoia: If the government can tell me what food I shouldn’t really eat, what’s to stop them from telling me what food I must eat? The next thing you know, breakfast is prescribed by the Feds and administered by military police.

I understand the objections. But I don’t think they hold up. And in fact, I want to make the case that a skull and crossbones on a package of “toaster pastries” or multicolored marshmallows masquerading as part of a complete breakfast (what part, I’ve always wondered?); or a day’s supply of sugar dissolved in caramel-colored liquid; or something that once resembled animal flesh that has now been processed into a concoction of meat, sugar, salt and carcinogens — does not go nearly far enough.

After all, we are talking about food. And food should be … well, food.

Tobacco is tobacco: There is no way around that. None of us has to smoke, and those of us who do are exposed to the intrinsic harms of tobacco. We deserve to know what those are, and how significant. This is really no different than providing just such information about pharmaceuticals. I doubt even the libertarians object to disclosures about the potential side effects of pharma’s offerings. In fact, I suspect the libertarians may feel particularly entitled to just such information.

Tobacco and alcohol are the same. They are drugs, albeit drugs used recreationally. They come with intrinsic dangers, and the consumer has a right to know about them.

One might argue to extend just such thinking to junk food, and thus counter the libertarian argument. Indeed, I think that could be done: being told what’s what is not being told what do to! We can be told what is in our food without being told what food to put in our mouths.

But as noted, I don’t think the “unless you want to die slowly and painfully, don’t eat this food!” label goes far enough. Because unlike tobacco or alcohol, or drugs used to treat disease, food is supposed to be good for us, not bad. It is supposed to be sustenance, not sabotage.

We are, truly, what we eat — using the nutrient components of food to reconstruct ourselves from our molecules on up every day. Consider, in particular, that food is the one, only, literal construction material for the growing body of a child you love. How we ever got the notion that junk food - out of which we are growing our children – was cute, or innocent, I have no idea.

You can’t smoke tobacco and avoid tobacco. You can’t drink alcohol and avoid alcohol. But you can eat food and avoid junk. There is, in fact, an impressive range of overall nutritional quality in almost every food category – so we could abandon junk food altogether, and quickly learn not to miss it.

In my opinion, that’s what we should do. Despite thinking at first that warning labels might go too far, I wound up realizing they wouldn’t go nearly far enough. Junk should never have been glorified as a food group in the first place. So sure, let’s apply some objective method to determine what foods warrant a scarlet “J,” but then, let’s eradicate them – because they aren’t food. We can sell them for something else — like spackling, for instance. But food ought to be food, not junk. It’s silly to have “don’t buy this food” labels on food we keep selling as … food. If it warrants the warning, it really doesn’t qualify. There are alternative products that do in every case.

Which might, I suppose, put me at odds with the libertarians. What else is new.

But frankly, even they should object to the false advertising involved in marketing junk as food. Besides, they can still smoke and drink.

David L. Katz is the founding director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. He is the author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.

Image credit:

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • John C. Key MD

    When did the concept of free people making free choices become such a backward concept? While I am, and have been, a fan of Dr Katz/ work and teaching, the progressive idea of putting warning labels on everything is a bridge too far. And do labels on everything from “this bag is not a toy” to “smoking is dangerous to your health” and “this firearm is dangerous and can kill humans”–do those actually do any good, or are they just a “feel good” exercise to make us feel we are making a difference.

    Warning labels, IMHO, are no substitute for, nor even a reasonable adjunct to, solid public health work and patient education.

    The kids and the “invincibles” are neither going to read or believe them anyway.

    • Margalit Gur-Arie

      This is not about free people making free choices. This is about criminals being allowed to use psych ops tactics on our babies to make them crave poison.
      Sure we can turn off the TV, restrict our kids movements, avoid certain malls and places, teach them counter measures to defend themselves and hope for the best, but why should we? Free people shouldn’t have to hide kids under blankets, or live in a cabin in the woods to avoid their assailants. Free people have a right to be free, and those who don’t mind killing us all just so they can make more money don’t have such rights in a free society.

      • Dr. Drake Ramoray

        Margalit, I generally agree with you but if the current environment is “criminals being allowed to use psych ops tactics on our babies to make them crave poison.” then the opposite view that the “government wants to control and regulate everything so that nobody gets hurt or feels bad about anything ever (see bullying) in their entire lifetime from the cradle to the grave” shouldn’t seem too outlandish either.

        That being said cutting the cable cord in my house was one of the best things I have ever done :)

        “Free people have a right to be free, and those who don’t mind killing us all just so they can make more money don’t have such rights in a free society.”

        I could extrapolate that out to our current healthcare system, some of the mandated “guidelines” and practices and procedures that aren’t in the best interest of patients etc and the enforcement by the federal government to have health insurance. That doesn’t sound like “freedom” either.

        • Margalit Gur-Arie

          No, it doesn’t sound like freedom at all.

          At some point, we should define who exactly should be free. Is it the people that have a right to be free? Or is it Corporations who have the supreme right to be free to hunt us down for profit? Or is it the Government that has the right to be free to enrich its members?
          According to both common law and any modicum of human decency, the latter two are criminal thugs. A free society has a right to protect itself, and freedom doesn’t mean that everybody is free to clobber each other to death, or to protect himself from clobbering. We are a nation of laws, so let’s make some laws, and enforce the ones we already have, so people (not institutions) can be free.

      • Arby

        The trouble then becomes define what is poison. I have to eat a paelo diet or I gain weight and feel like heck. But, I am told to eat grains and meat is bad; my issues are a figment of my imagination.

        I am all for removing crap food, mostly by subsidizing family farms intead of entities like Monsantos, but I fear third parties deciding what is best for me.

        • Margalit Gur-Arie

          Yes, family farms, which “we” exterminated in the name of efficiency and cheap food prices, turning over our “food” supply to big agribusiness. Just like we are now doing to health care, and in twenty years or so will be moaning and groaning along the same lines.

          I don’t want government to tell you what to eat. Science can certainly produce research on the subject and you should be free to take it or leave it. This however does not include false advertising by corporations being granted unfettered access to my kids to tell them that Fruit Loops are yummy and pretty and cute, every 15 minutes, all day long.

          • Arby

            I understand now. I think I was a couple steps ahead of you here. I would have no problem with regulating advertising to children. Although I fear we can’t even keep s_x from even the littlest of them anymore.

          • Lisa

            There is a large local food movement in this country. I see farmers markets most places I travel. I think small farms, producing high quality organic food will continue to thrive in this country. And by participating in CSA (weekly box of whatever is in season), it is not expensive. By the way, I also see a lot of work to bring good food to poorer communities.

            I do think there should be restrictions on advertising of junk food of any kind.

    • Dr. Drake Ramoray

      It does lend itself to warning labels on everything, and much like the Bloomberg and soda ban, I pose the question to the author of this piece as to why just fast food? Why not regular soda? Why not the 1600 calorie dessert at the chain sit down restaurant? Pretty soon you will be putting a warning label on you guessed it everything, even the beloved Cheese Cake Factory that is so often written about on these boards (Ironically, one could make a case for especially the Cheese Cake Factory).

      • Patient Kit

        Why not warnings on huge sirloin steaks and prime ribs? Why limit the skull & crossbones to the junk food burger? It’s just as unhealthy to eat regularly at Peter Luger’s steakhouse as it is to eat at McDonald’s.

        Common sense and moderation cannot be legislated. But information can be provided. When it comes to nutrition, I welcome information so that I can make informed decisions about what I eat or don’t eat. Nutrition labels and calorie counts on food and menus is helpful, useful info. Plenty of times I’ve resisted eating something because the info I had about it made me stop, think and deem it not worth it. And the occasional times when I give into some “bad” food craving, I do it with informed consent. I’m all for concrete nutrition info but not warnings or laws like my former mayor (Bloomberg) would have.

        • Dr. Drake Ramoray

          In general, this is not specifically directed at you, policy makers overestimate how much food info and warnings change behaviour, and people generally overestimate how often they look at food labels.

          There are several apps and resources that are available for people who are concerned about the content and healthiness of their food. There is a book we often use for our patients who carb count called the Calorie King. They have an app too. The book includes the carbs, fat, protein, salt, and sugar, content in just about every food, including some restaurants that don’t include their nutrition information on their website. (CheeseCake Factory I’m looking at you, but lets be honest they sell huge cheesecakes.)

          • Patient Kit

            We don’t have any Cheesecake Factories here in NYC. We do, however, have plenty of yummy cheesecake. I don’t doubt that you’re right about many people not reading food labels. But, to me, information empowers me to make better choices. I read them all the time. I’m starting to suspect that I’m not the average bear I think I am.

          • Lisa

            I don’t know if you are the average bear or not, but I read labels carefully before I buy any processed food at the supermarket. As a result, most of what I buy is unprocessed.

            I never eat at chain resteraunts, so often don’t know the calorie count of food when I eat out, but am usually pretty careful about what I order and tend to get salads or plain food.

  • Margalit Gur-Arie

    Yes, but since Mr. Lewis wrote that, we came up with a third option, where we can be free of both scourges, and I would very much like to preserve that freedom instead of picking the lesser of two evils.

    To go back to junk food, I don’t have a problem with people manufacturing and trying to sell junk. I do have a problem with us being forced to watch and hear their deceitful propaganda on public airwaves. We do own those, and I don’t think we should allow our property to be used against us. We removed cigarette ads from TV and we wouldn’t allow cyanide candy ads on TV, so why on earth are we allowing Captain Crunch ads on TV? They are aimed at infants, by the way….
    And no, I don’t want to switch channels. I don’t want to abandon my property and run for cover because the hoodlums are asserting their false rights to false free speech in my house. I want them to leave, and I want my law enforcement to make them leave.
    I don’t want the “moral busybodies” to tell me what to buy, what to eat, what do drink or whatever. I just want them to clear the criminals off my front lawn and let me be.

    • Arby

      I will always commend a quote from C.S. Lewis. I like him that much.
      I like the idea of your third option, and I think he would agree. Unfortunately, we pretty much have the worst of both and it is only getting worse. Robber barons pretending to be doing it for our good. I can’t believe people buy it.

  • Arby

    C.S. Lewis. Touché.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    Is that cheese on the chips or are those orange worms?

    • Arby

      I think it is supposed to look unappetizing and it really does. Where is that emesis basin?

    • ErnieG

      They are Cheeto Chetah stools.

  • Karen Ronk

    Personal responsibility – table for one? Yes, we are bombarded by advertisers and evil money grubbing corporations to buy everything we don’t need or should not consume. And yes, the advertising is seductive to children and grownups with children’s appetites. But, I have never seen a five year old walk into a store and buy their own box of super sugary cereal or “fruit” drink or chips or ……..

    How about concentrating on making it more affordable to buy and eat healthy food? It does cost significantly more more to make healthy dishes from scratch and we all know that by the time we have left the produce aisle, we have already spent at least $20 or $30 dollars on perishables that we will need to replenish much sooner than the “junk” with year long sell by dates. I honestly do not know how families living on the lousy stagnating wages in this country manage to feed their kids well at all.

    I am more concerned with the copious amounts of alcohol that many younger people consume these days. That behavior poses a threat not only to those who consume but to others as well. .And most certainly will contribute to long term health issues as much as consuming junk food.

  • Dorothygreen

    How about these labels Dr Katz:

    This soda contains sugar and water subsidized by income tax payers. The RISK of heart disease and diabetes increases with increased sugar consumption.

    This meat comes from an animal confined in a feed lot and fed grain, that is subsidized by income taxpayers. Grain fed animals often require antibiotics and provide less nutrition.

    The whole wheat in this bread was added just before baking. It raises blood sugar as rapidly as white bread and table sugar. The RISK of heart disease and diabetes increases as blood sugar increases.

    The label and, mostly, the tax, DID decrease tobacco smoking – the deaths and health care costs. It was not a “feel good” exercise by Dr. Koop and most doctors were with the program. They knew the dangers and were the first to quit They did not demand to be paid specifically for telling patients “you are at risk of lung disease unless you stop smoking”. What else do you need to say, the labels and the taxes were there along with the education and public health efforts (jobs supported by the tax)

    Such a model is transferable to processed sugar, not just soda but all processed sugar and refined wheat flour. They need to become more costly than leafy greens. The process can only be started by stopping the subsidies (tobacco model) and impose a Risk tax (pretty much what the tobacco tax is). It cannot start with a penny/ounce on soda. This is limited and makes it much easier for the beverage companies to scream unfair. It must be an amount/gram.

    I ask, as an income tax payer, is it fair that I have to pay so much for fresh vegetables and fruits and pasture meat because they are considered specialties and as such cannot be subsidized? These keep me healthy. And, then on top of this expense, I pay income taxes to subsidize the sugar in soda, ice cream, pastries, pizza dough, burger buns and cereal along with the refined flour in many of these products. And I know they are the primary root cause of chronic preventable diseases, which consume over half of all health care dollars. Who pays? Again – the biggest burden is on middle income tax payers. I am certainly not alone in understanding what is happening here.

    These unfair costs for one to stay healthy and subsidize the risky foods that folks can eat cheaply 24/7 reduces “disposable income”, income that would be used to purchase nicer or new clothes, a vacation, music lessons, gym fees. And the “greed machines” wheels continue to be turned by big ag, big food lobbyists with the goal of increasing profit at the expense of middle income taxpayers.

    • JR

      I have read before that sugar is cheaper than ever before, that is the real reason it is in so many foods. I have trouble even finding spaghetti sauce without added sugar.

      Changing things so sugar isn’t cheap anymore, therefore improving public health… not targeting one industry but rather the ingredient… interesting concept.

Most Popular