Mark Bittman Food Label

We love it when foodie, author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman spends his time dreaming—especially when he dreams up ideas like actually meaningful food labels.

Bittman’s recent op-ed for the Times entitled “My Dream Food Label” (October 13, 2012) was likely inspired by all the hullabaloo surrounding Proposition 37, which if it passes in November’s election, would make California the first state to mandate labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. This is huge, considering more than 60 nations around the world have regulations on GMOs while the United States not only has zero regulations on GMOs, but these controversial ingredients are also found in nearly 80 percent of the processed foods in the country. If Prop 37 passes, as stated in a viral infographic released by The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog (and my employer): “As goes California, so goes the nation.” If it passes in California, legislation could spiral out through the rest of the country finally regulating GMOs, reducing the human health and environmental risks of the crops and the companion pesticides.

Beyond whether or not a food contains GMOs, there are plenty of other confounding labeling claims—or lack thereof—that can be considered detrimental to our nation’s health. So, Bittman suggests a new labeling point system that could help consumers more easily make healthy purchasing decisions. He writes, “Every packaged food label would feature a color-coded bar with a 15-point scale so that almost instantly the consumer could determine whether the product’s overall rating fell between 11 and 15 (green), 6 and 10 (yellow) or 0 and 5 (red).”

Bittman’s rating system includes three main factors: Nutrition, “Foodness” and Welfare.

Nutrition: “High sugar, trans fats, the presence of micronutrients and fiber, and so on would all be taken into account. Thus soda would rate a zero and frozen broccoli might rate a five.”

Foodness: “This assesses just how close the product is to real food. White bread made with bleached flour, yeast conditioners and preservatives would get a zero or one; so would soda; a candy bar high in sugar but made with real ingredients would presumably score low on nutrition but could get a higher score on “foodness”; here, frozen broccoli would rate a four. “

Welfare: “This would include the treatment of workers, animals and the earth. Are workers treated like animals? Are animals produced like widgets? Is environmental damage significant? If the answer to those three questions is “yes” — as it might be, for example, with industrially produced chickens — then the score would be zero, or close to it. If the labor force is treated fairly and animals well, and waste is insignificant or recycled, the score would be higher. “

We came up with a few other label ideas we’d love to see included in Mr. BIttman’s dream world:

Kid Friendly: Picky eaters can end up wasting a lot of food–a huge issue that leads to tens of millions of pounds of perfectly edible food ending up in landfills. So perhaps a system that rates the likelihood of favorability among the pickiest eaters—lijke those younger people whose taste buds still haven’t developed so as to avoid pitching half-eaten food into the trash. Think of it like a movie rating: bitter/spicy foods get the “NC 17″ rating and applesauce gets a “G.”

U.S. or Locally Made: While the COOL (Country of Origin Label) is in effect on beef, pork, lamb and some fruits and vegetables, many imported ingredients used in processed foods are not noted on labels. What’s more, the FDA rarely inspects imported foods, despite the increased risks of contamination. Locally sourced and produced foods reduce the costs of transport and the damage to the environment. National brands could indicate whether the entire product has a U.S. origin, and smaller cottage industries could indicate their exact location or region to help consumers choose the most economic options while also supporting local economies.

Whole Foods: Similar to Bittman’s Nutrition and Foodness categories, getting specific on whether ingredients were completely whole or not makes a big difference. Is something sweetened with real apples or apple juice? Does it include whole nuts or nut butter? In other words, were the ingredients only processed once–that being in the making of the product now in your hands–or does it contain pre-processed ingredients? If all the ingredients that went in were au natural, then it would be considered a “whole food.”

The fewer processing steps involved in our food, the safer and healthier it is. In fact, maybe rather than updating packaging claims and labels, we just do away with them altogether? Ok, now we’re dreaming…but, like Bittman said, “Front-of-package labeling is sacred to big food companies, a marketing tool of the highest order, a way to encourage purchasing decisions based not on the truth but on what manufacturers would have consumers believe.” And until these multinational corporate manufacturers start a process of radical disclosure, there’s no better time than Right Now to start cooking for ourselves and avoiding packaged foods as often as possible.

Check out Bittman’s multimedia look at his dream labels here.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Illustrations and labels by Werner Design Werks for The New York Times