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Warning: Labels may be useless

Barry Smith

All I can say is, it’s a good thing they had the final weigh-in for the Great American Weight Loss Challenge before Thanksgiving.

Did you read about it? There were 1,790 people in Carson City, Reno and hereabouts who lost a total of 8,288 pounds over the past two months. Unbelievable.

They compared it to losing the equivalent of a cow elephant. I looked at it another way. The weight they lost was about the same as making 50 people disappear entirely. No wonder Carson City has seemed a little less crowded this fall.

Where did it all go? I have no idea. I just hope they didn’t eat the equivalent of a rhinoceros yesterday.

Congratulations to all you people who made the commitment to be healthier and feel better. It’s an inspiration for the rest of us, because we should all be watching our weight and what we eat.

In fact, the experts are now saying obesity is the No. 1 health issue in America today. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does give me another reason to be concerned.

Because whenever the experts start telling Americans what they need to do to be healthier, the next step usually is to have the government step in and force us to follow the rules.

You know what I mean. We’re not capable of taking care of ourselves. We can’t be trusted to make the right choices. Someone needs to do it for us.

That’s exactly contrary to what I believe is best for society – at least to the extent we’ve pushed it these days. The more somebody takes care of us, I believe, the more we expect somebody else to be responsible for our actions.

That’s one of the reasons the Great American Weight Loss Challenge was such a good idea, because it used people’s own initiative and provided some fun incentives to get them to lose weight.

The government’s idea would be to ban Ding Dongs.

You think I exaggerate, but one of the pushes now is to force food-preparation companies to change the labels on the packages to be more accurate in their descriptions of the contents.

While I’m all in favor of truth in labeling, this particular effort has to do with the number of “servings” contained in the package. Now the labels generally break down the package into typical servings and then describe the number of calories in each serving.

For example, I just grabbed a jar of peanuts out of the bottom drawer of my desk. It says a serving size is 1 ounce (28 grams, about 1/4 cup), and there are 160 calories in a serving. Fat calories are 120 per serving. Then it breaks it down into total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and so on.

Somebody at the Federal Trade Commission thinks that’s misleading. He’s pretty sure I won’t be able to stop with just one “serving” of peanuts, especially when it’s been kind of a rough day and I’m working late and I’m not real sure exactly when I’m going to get a chance to eat dinner.

He would be right.

So the folks at the FTC are thinking the label should give the calories and fat content and so on for the whole blasted jar of peanuts. Like I’m going to eat the whole thing. Like even if I do eat the whole thing, I don’t know that’s probably not good for me. Like if I do eat an entire jar of anything, it should probably be celery. Except celery doesn’t come in a jar.

Well, while your tax dollars are at work convincing the food-packaging industry to save us from ourselves when we decide to binge (would there be a total calorie count on, say, the side of a pallet of Ding Dongs when it arrives from the warehouse?), I say this: The more labels, the less we read them.

The world has gone nuts, so to speak, on labeling products for our safety.

In the break room at the Nevada Appeal, there’s a soda machine I walk by about six times a day (often on my way to buy a Snickers, which I also don’t need). I just noticed this week that it has a label above the coin slot which states: “Vending machine will not dispense free product.”

This is, I think, probably true. I had not noticed it before, probably because it never occurred to me that I could get a free Mountain Dew out of the vending machine. Just like it hadn’t occurred to me to look for a coin slot on the refrigerator next to it.

There is no shortage of dumb labels in the world.

On a portable stroller: “Caution: Remove infant before folding for storage.”

On your string of Christmas lights: “For indoor or outdoor use only.”

On a package of dice: “Not for human consumption.”

On a TV remote control: “Not dishwasher safe.”

At some point – and I think we reached it in approximately 1982 – the net effect is that labels become meaningless.

That peanut jar in my desk? It has another label which says “Best if used by Dec. 1, 2004.” So if the jar is still there next Thanksgiving, I’m eating the whole thing in one sitting.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at 887-1221 or editor@nevadaappeal.com.