Published on: February 28, 2008Now available on iTunes…To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:
Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this in MorningNewsBeat Radio, now available on iTunes and sponsored by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.
It was interesting this week to note that on the same day, Tuesday, the Washington Post
ran two different stories about the issue of nutrition labeling for food products sold in supermarkets. The stories looked at the increasing number of alternatives out there:
• The Guiding Stars program created by Hannaford Supermarkets, now being licensed to other retailers and manufacturers, which only rates foods as good for you, better for you and best for you.
• The Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI, which has been adopted by retailers such as Hy-Vee, Wegmans and Harris-Teeter, and which rates virtually every food in the store on a scale of 1 through 100.
• And Safeway’s FoodFlex program, an online system designed to show you the nutritional content of purchases made with your club card and point you to healthier alternatives.
While I suppose it is possible that all these systems could end up confusing customers – one can imagine that in the Washington market alone, a customer visiting Safeway, Harris Teeter and then Hannaford’s sister company, Food Lion, on the same day, might get a form of the informational bends trying to keep all the data straight. However, the position here long has been that there really is no such thing as too much information…and that retailers and manufacturers are far better off being utterly transparent and letting shoppers figure out which information is useful and which is not. (Because, as we all know, the standards will vary for different shoppers on different days…and they might even vary for the same shopper at various times on the same day.)
I will admit to one concern about all this labeling, however…not a concern that diminishes the importance of it, but rather a kind of cautionary note…
I would hate to see us get to the point where all the fun gets drained out of food, where as a culture we are so concerned about this ingredient or that level of fat that we cease to be able to enjoy a really good meal.
This is, of course, complicated by the fact that there are so many issues involved with food these days. It isn’t just nutrition labeling. There’s the obesity crisis, which doesn’t seem to be getting any better. There are worries about contaminated meat from downer cattle. There are headlines about seafood from China that has been raised in polluted ponds and then shot full of antibiotics. There are news stories about high levels of mercury in sushi. Entire cities have banned trans fats. There’s local vs. organic vs. natural – whatever these things really mean, and I’m guessing that most people don’t have a clue. Some studies say that diet drinks make you want to eat more, other studies say that eating chocolate is healthy for you, and it seems like almost every other day there is a story saying that this food will help prevent that illness and then the next day there is a story saying that the same food will make you more susceptible to this other illness. And this doesn’t even count all the tangential stories that spring to mind when food shopping – like the carbon footprints of each of the products in the store, and what the hell you’re supposed to carry the products home in (paper, plastic or cloth).
Now, maybe I’m more aware of this stuff because I spend a good part of my working life writing and speaking about it. But certainly consumer consciousness of these problems and issues is higher than ever. What I don't know is whether the food industry and the media are sort of grinding people down by focusing so relentlessly on all these stories. The Catch-22, of course, is that neither has a choice – the media writes about these issues because, well, they are news and that’s what we do. And the food industry has to address issues that may be on the minds of consumers. Turning a blind eye is never an option.
More than ever, it seems to me, it is critical for the food industry to counterbalance all this noise with an approach to food that stresses the sensual, fun, energizing, and romantic qualities of great food. And I mean great
food…not mediocre food, not food as fuel, not stuff that passes through the body without leaving any impression other than caloric.
The older I get, the less patient I am with food that simply isn’t very good. It simply is a matter of math. If I live to be 80, I’ve got something like 9,000 dinners ahead of me…which may sound like a lot, but it pales next to the almost 20,000 dinners that I’ve eaten so far.
I can't help but think that as many of them as possible ought to be memorable. And I think it ought to be up to the food industry to help people make them so. Not that we ought to ignore the basic tenets of good nutrition, moderation, and, of course, exercise. Living long enough to enjoy a minimum of 100,000 meals is actually an important part of the equation.
But whenever possible, meals ought to make memories.
For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.