Red Light, Green Light?

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About a week ago I came across an article published by CNN Health entitled Red light, green light: Food choice made easier. The article describes a study performed in a Massachusetts hospital cafeteria, where foods were labeled with green stickers for the most healthy items, yellow stickers for less healthy items, and red stickers for the least healthy options. Items with green stickers were put in easily visible and easy-to-reach locations.

It’s a fairly simple concept; even a child can understand the “green means go, red means stop” analogy. In fact, the study was based on a book by Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist, designed to help parents and kids make smarter dietary choices in their own homes.

The hospital study was geared toward adults rather than children, and about a third of the purchases were made by hospital employees who used the cafeteria regularly. After 24 months, the study showed a decrease in red-sticker purchases, from 24% to 21% (and an even greater decrease in red-sticker beverage purchases), while green-sticker purchases increased from 41% to 46%. Employee purchases showed the greatest improvement.

The takeaway, at least according to the study’s authors as quoted in the CNN article, is that “simple food environment interventions can play a major role in public health policies to reduce obesity.” However, the study’s lead author, Dr. Anne Thorndike, does state that while the traffic-light system can quickly and easily convey a brief nutritional overview, it cannot and should not replace more detailed nutrition information.

I’m inclined to agree with Thorndike’s latter statement. While the colored label strategy may work well on a smaller scale – in a hospital cafeteria setting or your family’s pantry – the assumption made in the takeaway above is that it could potentially be applied on a wider scale – in supermarkets, for example.

Except that… well, supermarkets already do this. Or rather, food corporations do. It’s what Michele Simon, a public health attorney, calls “nutriwashing”. Just as foods can be “greenwashed” by the food industry, they can also be nutriwashed. It’s when highly-processed junk food at your neighborhood grocery store comes with a “whole grain” label stamped on the box. Or when food companies such as Kraft label their products “Sensible Solutions”, or PepsiCo slaps a “Smart Spot” sticker on their packaging. In her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How To Fight Back, Simon explains how companies will go to great lengths to persuade health-conscious consumers to continue buying their products, even if it means developing their own (misleading) guidelines for “healthy” eating. Health-minded consumers are simply more likely to buy a product if it has a healthy label attached to it.

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So how is the traffic light analogy any different? If this strategy fell into the wrong hands – co-opted by the food industry’s PR machine – “green light” labels would cease to mean anything at all.

Indeed, Dr. Dolgoff, originator of the “green-light, red-light” concept, has come under criticism because her own book advocates green labels for some questionable “foods”, including Lucky Charms, white breads and pastas, candy corn, M&Ms, etc. It makes you wonder if her research was sponsored by a corporate source; it would not be unheard of. (To be fair, I have not read her book myself, and there have been many positive reviews as well.)

To apply the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” system on a large scale would require an independent governing body – one which is not influenced by Big Food lobbyists – to make decisions on how to designate labels. Judging by the state of labels in our supermarkets now, and the power Big Food has over the market, this would be no easy task.

But perhaps the takeaway should be this: the strategy can work. It can work in your own home if accompanied by a little research and education. It may work particularly well in teaching children about diet and limits. It may not solve the wider problem of obesity, which affects a third of Americans. But if you ask me, it’s probably as good a place to start as any.

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Spammin’

One of the reasons I love Slate is their opinion blogs, where one author writes an article, and a few days later, another writes an article as a direct response, often calling the other out. It’s a lot like eavesdropping on a conversation – usually a well-researched one.

Last week I read one written by Anne Weaver, imploring me to “Give Spam a Chance”. I was largely unconvinced, but I chalked it up to a thought experiment. (Go, me!) Days later, Ted Genoways responded with “Spam’s Shame”. Being the info junkie that I am, I clicked several of the links he used as reference in his article, and was led to an in-depth story about the Spam factory in Austin, Minnesota (also written by Genoways).

(A warning: the article is not gratuitous, but there are some graphic descriptions of the slaughter process, an explanation of which is necessary to understanding the sickness contracted by the workers Genoways interviewed. If you’re especially queasy at the mention of blood and violence, maybe use caution when reading the article. Fortunately there are no graphic pictures.)

I am speechless. If anyone thinks that the meat industry is only bad because of violations to animal welfare… please, please think again. Slaughterhouse workers don’t even have to EAT the meat they process to get seriously sick from it. The meat industry is a HUGE human health hazard beyond what it does to us when it goes through our digestive tracts. The industry also gets its “hands” dirty by employing undocumented workers and keeping its employees entrenched in poverty. Personally, I think that the human interest violations of the meat industry are exponentially more serious than animal welfare issues (though those are gravely serious and deserve attention in their own right.)

My interests in the food and meat industries are precisely this: our diets have great implications on the lives of others. MY diet affects others’ – their health, their socioeconomic status, their environment. The argument “why do you care what I eat?” just doesn’t hold water with me, because it tells me that you don’t really know what’s behind that porkchop on your plate or that Spam in your belly.

The Art (and Application) of Rhetoric

I’m currently enrolled in this really cool MOOC (massive open online course) called Rhetorical Composing, through coursera.org. (Check it out – there are a ton of subjects to choose from, taught by experts from around the country, and best of all – its free education! What a great resource for anyone looking to enhance their skills. Though you won’t get a grade or any college credit, it’s meaningful if you are committed to lifelong learning.)

Being the first time I’ve ever taken a MOOC, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it began. Well, it’s challenging me.

In five weeks we’ve had three major assignments – this last one being the steepest learning curve. We were instructed to produce a PSA about an issue of our choosing, using what we’ve learned about rhetorical appeals: ethos, or credibility of the speaker/author (me, in this case); logos, or backing an argument with facts and statistics; pathos, the use of emotion in persuasion; and kairos, or saying the right thing at the right time for maximum effect. (There is more to the art of rhetoric, but I won’t bore you with that here.)

The PSA was to be in any form of our choosing – postcard, poster, video, photo story. Being a photographer, I should have chosen a photo story. But, ever the ambitious one, I opted to make (my first ever!) video. Here’s the result: You Are What You Eat (opens in new window)

(I wish I knew how to embed this directly into my blog – well, another thing to learn at another time…)

Fortunately we are peer-reviewed on content over quality! Obviously my skills for making videos (with quality audio) are next to zero, but there you have it.

I chose to address the impact meat production has on the environment, animal welfare, and human health. When I began reading about the food industry several years ago, the more I learned, the more convinced I became that the effects of meat are far-reaching. The consumption of meat contributes to both environmental and health crises – two topics that particularly appeal to kairos in an age when we are combating diseases of excess and the degradation of our planet.

While I try not to “preach” to others about the meat industry – people tend to be very sensitive about their food – I do think it is important that consumers understand what effects their food choices can have. My PSA is particularly geared toward a mixed audience of omnivores, “foodies”, and people concerned about the environment, animal welfare, and their own health.

The general consensus by my peers was that the video was a bit longer than a conventional PSA (30-60 seconds), and that I could have benefited from narrowing my audience and focusing on either environment, health, or animal welfare – instead of all three at once. Otherwise, I got fairly good reviews.

The ability to narrow my focus is exactly my problem, and it always has been. I’m not saying they’re wrong – it’s likely that my video could have been more impactful if I had narrowed my scope.

I find I always write too much and can never make decisions. Its part of my struggle as I research grad schools. I want to be able to turn my interests in food – and all that “food” encompasses – into marketable and useful skills in the worlds of policy and health. So, naturally, I’m looking at Public Policy and Public Health programs. Unfortunately my finances will eventually, I’m sure, force me to choose one or the other – I can’t be a student forever, after all.

Do I want to study policy, in an area focused on environmental issues surrounding food production? Or do I want to study public health, so that I can be effective in helping people make healthy food choices? If I were to work in a field related to poverty and nutrition, food deserts and urban access to fresh produce, would I go for an MPP or an MPH? If I wanted to pursue the ethics of marketing and commercialization and how those things affect the way we think about our food – would I need to go in a new direction altogether? I think what I really need is a solid program that encourages lots of interdisciplinary study…

If anyone out in the world wide web can offer me advice, or point me to Masters programs, I’m open to it.

In the meantime, I’m hoping I can hone in on my rhetorical writing skills. Maybe it will make me a better writer. Hopefully though, it makes me a better decision-maker, too.

(Disclaimer: I do not own the template, images, or music in the video linked to above. The video was made for educational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use. I am not making any kind of profit off of this production.)