Food Labels Don't Discourage Fat People

12/07/2011 11:47 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Canadians are among the most overweight in the world. I was going to say "fat," but that term seems unnecessarily mean-spirited and stigmatizing, especially when you consider that children are a significant part of the overweight demographic.

Delicacy aside, fat we are.

A study released last week from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that one in four Canadian children is overweight, ranking us third in the world. And things seem to be getting worse.

This is a depressing bit of reality. Obesity has been a top public health issue for years. And gloomy obesity facts have become a pop culture fixture. (My favourite is this shocker: According to the World Health Organization, 1 billion humans are currently overweight and 300 million clinical obese.)

Given the public and political awareness of this unhealthy trend, and given all the government reports and recommendations, you'd think we could do something about it. You'd think the trend would be going the other way.

Some recent research from the UK highlights just why the obesity issue is so difficult from a policy perspective. The UK is a country with a fairly comprehensive food labelling system designed to encourage people to make healthier choices. But it turns out that people generally ignore food labels and simply buy what they want. Clearly, the labels are not having the impact that the policy makers had hoped for.

In fact, this finding is consistent with a number other studies on labeling with similarly sobering conclusions like "we did not detect a change in calories purchased after the introduction of calorie labelling" and "no overall decline in calories purchased was observed."

To be honest, we shouldn't be surprised by these results. It is mightily difficult to get people to change their behaviour, even when people know the behaviour in question is unhealthy. (I am powerless against the pull of chocolate. I am talking about meal-sized portions. Mine is not a healthy one-tiny-square-to-get-your-anti-oxidants habit.) Also, there are numerous paradoxical behavioural responses to nutritional information. For example, some studies suggest people eat more calories when they think a food is healthy.

Of course, it doesn't help that there is a massive food industry spending billions on marketing strategies that are aimed at convincing us to eat, eat, EAT. Can sterile food labels compete with images of sexy, hip (and invariably thin) youth enjoying a late-night "fourth meal," to paraphrase the insidiously ingenious Taco Bell advertisement campaign?

It is trite to say that the obesity problem is a complex phenomenon that will be difficult to address, but this needs to be said again and again. We shouldn't forget that innumerable interrelated social, economic and evolutionary forces created this problem. It is going to take innumerable interrelated social policies to reverse it. And it is also going to take time. We are, after all, trying to turn around a big, heavy ship that has had decades to buildup a significant amount of momentum.

Many may view the labeling data as an indication of a policy failure. The UK data, for example, was reported as a "blow to the UK government." But I see it as a call to arms. We need to kick it up a notch. Food labels are a good idea. They provide useful information that may, eventually, help to change the way we think about food and the amount we eat. And while they don't seem to have a dramatic impact on consumption habits, there are hints that the labels do have some positive effects. But more is needed. We need to come at this problem from various directions. We need a wide range of policies including school-based education programs, innovative public health campaigns, tax incentives, and industry regulation (indeed, a national ban on junk food advertisements aimed at kids sounds like a good place to start).

As a society we seem to be faced with two choices: embrace our portly prospects and accept all the health (and health cost) ramifications that accompany this approach; or work to develop a broad range of innovative policies and tools to counter the trend. The choice, especially when you consider the one in four overweight Canadian kids, seems obvious.