Food Lables to Indicate Nutritional Value? What Kind of Value?

So, it is a lot of work to read food labels. And it’s depressing. Did you know that 17 out of the 18 barbeque sauces that Walmart carries contain two main ingredients: tomato paste, and high fructose corn syrup? That’s right. And, yes: I’m that obsessed with reading labels. And yes, that particular brand which did not contain HFCS as the #2 ingredient did cost more per ounce than the others. You start to feel my pain. So many Americans have no choice but to buy the foods which fail to provide them with adequate nutrition, or satisfy their appetite. And just as many are not aware, that is what they’re buying. nutritional Reformers are trying to make changes, but it’s been difficult, since industry is addicted to cheap ingredients . . . and who isn’t trying to save money these days?

I was intrigued to discover a couple months ago that Michelle Obama has actually staked a major claim in this particular national issue of concern. I found out, through this article in the NY Times, discussing a deal she’s orchestrated with Walmart, who has agreed to run a new line of healthier foods, and to print labels clearly marking the nutritional value of various canned goods.

The measure are, of course, not without controversy, since Walmart has developed such a bad reputation in regards to local ecologies, economies, and business. However, Mrs. Obama seems to understand the underlying socio-economic issues at play in national health by going after the number one grocery seller to low-income families, as well as the number one competitor when it comes to American retail. The hope is that Walmart’s changes will put pressure on other big companies such as Kraft who, up to this point, have refused to budge regarding their nutritional content, or even honest communication thereof through labels. This article on‘s blog outlines the debate surrounding the deal.

I was interested to learn, that England had a heated debate last summer about whether or not to implement their own form of a nutritional labeling system, which involved a metaphoric traffic light shining green, yellow, or red to indicate health value. The system is used voluntarily by other countries in the UK As one can imagine, food companies did not like the idea of customers seeing a red flashing light when they encountered their products. Imagine, knowing what you’re eating. Scandalous.

If I were to weigh into the conversation, I’d mainly like to draw attention to the fragile balance of concern between the quality and quantity of food value. Formulating, as Latour would say, “matters of fact” into “matters of concern” requires us to decide what kinds of facts concern us.  The new policies Michell Obama has worked for, focus on quantitative measures trans fat, sodium, and added sugars.  This seems like a good place to start. But perhaps, the conversation should remain open to other forms of measurement as well. Jessica Mudry’s research points to a misguided sense of nutritional measurement in western science; hopefully these new reforms will act as a forum for the re-composition of these assumptions. Many believe that particular ingredients which are known to be both harmful to most people’s health and used in excess (such as HFCS and fructose) should be flagged with a warning label (as tobacco is), taxed, or banned all together. I think that the current measures are at least a step in the right direction, articulating matters of concern in a stronger network of association.

Nutritional Rhetoric: First Discoveries

Well, I suppose every grad student has this moment: the moment when they realize that someone has already written their hoped-for dissertation. I would like to have a moment of silence in honor of a hope deferred……..

On the positive side, the work of Jessica J. Mudry looks truly fantastic, and I am so glad that someone has done the intense work of answering many of my questions in regard to nutritional rhetoric and public policy. To be honest–and less mellow-dramatic–Dr. Mudry has not actually written my intended dissertation, which would focus on the medical aspect of nutritional rhetoric. Her book Measured Meals: Nutrition in America actually focuses on the history of the FDA’s construction of nutritional guidance based on methods of quantification (conta qualification…?) of things like calories, kinds of foods, etc. I can tell you, this book is on my way to house as we speak…or, as I write, I should say.

Searching for a biography of Dr. Mudry, I found several very interesting communities. The first is a group of scholars who hosted a conference entitled Domestic Foodscapes: Toward Mindful Eating? held March of 2008 in Montreal, cosponsored by Cornell and Concordia Universities, with panels on topics such as cooking practices, food technology and knowledge transmission, and the history of the kitchen. On her panel, titled “Representations of Food” Jessica Mudry presented a paper called “Mmmmm, high in omega-3s, just like mom used to make:  Scientizing our foods and the changing experience of the family dinner.” (All abstracts from the conference are available on the Domestic Foodscapes web page).

I found the second community while searching Social Science Full Text for articles by Dr. Mudry; she has published two in Food Culture and Society (one regarding the culture of alcohol and medicine). I will have to find and brows the journal; I’m not sure its particular focus or disciplinary affiliations as of yet.

According to the Domestic Foodscapes web page, Jessica Mudry has a very diverse academic background, proving the interdisciplinarity of scholars who, by one name or another, study the rhetoric of science. She has a BS in Organic Chemistry from McGill, a Masters in Science Communications form Imperial College, UK, and a PhD in Communications for U of Pittsburg. Her published book seems to be an extention of her dissertation on “a history of American nutrition communication by examining US Department of Agriculture food guides” (Domestic Foodscapes).  “Jessica has worked in children’s television production at the BBC, and Canada’s Discovery Channel. Dr. Mudry’s research addresses how and why we quantify food, and she continues to write about this in venues such as: Food, Culture and Society, and Social Epistemology. ”

Jessica is currently an assistant professor of technical communication, and society and technology in the General Studies Unit at Concordia University, and her present research regards the history of calorimity and human nutrition laboratories in Germany and America.  This makes me wonder how friendly she is (metaphorically, or literally) with Bruno Latour.