But this label stands to be consequential rather for what it fails to accomplish—the opportunity it squanders, and the people who are hurt by it. In that regard, one metric looms far above all others.
“The calorie count is bigger—a bigger font—so you can actually see it,” said Obama.
This is understatement, in that the calorie count number on the new labels is objectively enormous. It’s roughly three times the size of all other numbers.
If this is for purposes of legibility, then nothing else is meant to be legible. No, the giant calorie count is meant to make us feel something deep. It seems meant to bypass the cerebral cortex and hit us in the part of the brain where things stick forever, like memories of being attacked by a goose or hit by a golf ball.
But is emphasizing calories so uniquely really a good idea?
Calories are one metric to consider among many—they tell us nothing other than, if we were to set fire to this food, how much energy would be released? It’s 2016, and that’s the metric we’re giving people to help them with this epidemic, which is the primary driver of the leading cause of death. We are doing this even while we know that imploring people to simply eat less has repeatedly proven to be an ineffective approach to obesity. Logical on paper, it becomes extremely difficult to do so when what you eat is junk (as I’ve written about before. Junk begets ever more hunger; junk is made specifically to stimulate further cravings.) Calorie counts are helpful in some ways, but emphasizing them above all else is essentially saying, simply, eat less.
What’s effective is changing what people eat, moving from junk to food.
Companies that produce junk know this, and to prevent it, they manipulate the calorie concept. They’ve made 100-calorie packs of iconic junk like Chips Ahoy and Oreos, and shrunken some Coke cans, and artificially-sweetened everything. When people choose foods based primarily on a giant calorie number, all of these products seem totally reasonable. More reasonable, even, than a serving of almonds or olive oil (respectively 140 and 120 calories).
Of course, the giant calorie number comes in the context of other, minor changes to the label. For one, as Obama said on Friday, “The serving sizes are more realistic.” The labels will increase many serving sizes—to reflect, as required in the 1993 Nutrition Labelling and Education Act— “what people actually eat.”
The FDA offers, as an example, that larger globs of ice cream are now considered to be just one serving. Which means that the giant calorie number will be now larger in magnitude as well as size, in some cases. But this approach ultimately validates the notion that a big cream glob, or whole pack of Skittles, or girthy bottle of Coke, is a reasonable amount for anyone to ingest. A product can contain a week’s worth of sugar and also be just one serving.