Should Junk Food Carry a Warning Label?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  122 comments   :  32,247 Views

If you're a label-reader like I am, you know how to spot the foods you should avoid and the ones that can easily be incorporated into a healthy diet. I try to avoid foods that have tons of ingredients on the label, especially when most of them are things I don't even know how to pronounce. But not everyone has the time or interest to investigate what is in the foods they are eating. They take a quick look at the label and if it sounds generally healthy ("made with whole grains", "natural"), then the package goes into their shopping cart. Do you think they'd be less-likely to eat unhealthy junk foods if they came with a warning label?

We've blogged in the past about the proposal to use taxes as a way to discourage people from purchasing unhealthy foods. (Would taxes on junk food promote healthier eating? and Should We Impose an "Obesity Tax" on Soft Drinks? are two examples.) Opponents of this idea say it's not an effective way to curb junk food consumption, because many people are willing to take the financial hit and continue buying the products (or just buy the generic soda instead of name-brand.) A new study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs suggests that warning labels (combined with the tax) are a better way to discourage people from making these purchases.

The study asked consumers to choose between three snacks: a high-fat snack with a warning label, a high-fat snack without a warning and a healthier option. "The researchers found that people responded in one of three ways: One group heeded warning labels, another avoided less healthy snacks and was more sensitive to price when a warning label was present, and a third group was sensitive to price but not to warning labels." Using the warning to tell people the product is unhealthy and that's why it's being taxed was more effective than just a tax alone. "This product is high in fat. It has been taxed due to its less healthy nutritional content, is an example of one.

I think these warning labels are an interesting idea. Not everyone has the time or interest to read labels as they are quickly trying to get their shopping done after a long day. But seeing a quick disclaimer on the front of a product might make you think twice before deciding to buy.

What do you think?

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  • 72
    Actually, taxes work really well to lower the number of people who smoke -- it's really effective. The number of people who smoke has been cut in half in the last 30 years and the people who still smoke smoke fewer cigarettes on average. Most of the people who've given up smoking have been wealthier and better educated. It helps that it's become slowly less socially acceptable to smoke. My mom remembers clerks in stores smoking while they served her when I was a baby, but that sounds ridiculous and gross to me. Why would you smoke around a baby, or inside, or while you're working?

    Our library had an exhibit of old cigarette advertising and it was insane stuff! Forget Joe Camel -- in the 50s they used "doctors" to promote smoking as something good for your health. There were industry-funded studies poo-poohing the rising incidence of cancer and lung problems. I don't know that we can get people to change their eating habits as radically as smoking, but it'd be nice to see some movement on them. When I go into a deli to get a snack, I have to search for real juice or a banana, but there's plenty of junk food hanging out. Ultimately, we pay for other people's bad health either through taxes that cover Medicare/Medicaid and emergency treatment or through rising insurance premiums. - 4/20/2011   10:52:03 AM
  • 71
    It didn't work for cigarettes, people still use them and more start every day. What makes you think it will work for this?? - 4/20/2011   10:10:48 AM
  • 70
    I think that we are not food police! I believe that education is the answer not more taxes. Warning labels might be helpful, but I don't think the people who need to read them are the ones that will pay attention. I quit smoking when it no longer suited my lifestyle, not because of taxes and warning labels. - 4/20/2011   10:10:43 AM
    I definitely think taxing "junk" foods and placing warnings on labels would be greatly beneficial. There are a lot of uneducated people out there that eat/drink those things, and maybe seeing a blatant statement warning them of what they're about to eat, might make them think twice. It would also help the economy, especially if people don't care and will continue to purchase these unhealthy foods. I don't eat "junk" foods much, so it doesn't really affect me, but when I do decide to splurge on something of that nature, I won't mind paying a little more for it. TAX AWAY! - 4/20/2011   10:01:46 AM
    How about the government get back to doing 'government work' - like national security - and stop trying to micromanage everyone's lives and to snag bits of money from everyone under the guise of doing good for us all. Another cheap, backdoor way of slipping their hands into our pockets. If someone doesn't want to read or heed labels, they aren't going to. And if you don't know it's junk food when you stuff it into your face, that's your look out. - 4/20/2011   9:52:00 AM
    I doubt that puttng a tax on junk food would have much of an effect on what people eat. However with the US governments financial mess, maybe a tax on junk food dedicated to paying off the huge debt we have will help out the country! With the billions of dollars in junk food sold each year, a 10% tax on junk food sure would help out toward paying at least the interest on those loans. - 4/20/2011   9:44:03 AM
    Once again it comes down to personal choices. If one chooses to eat cake, let them eat cake! If I want cake, let me eat cake. Adding a tax will not deter people from choosing what to eat, either healthy or unhealthy. - 4/20/2011   9:31:19 AM
  • 65
    Interesting idea. There is proof that short word blurbs on packages do encourage purchases. Example is "No Trans Fats" even though it is still an unhealthy food to eat; "100% natural" even though it contains high sugar products that are "natural"; 100 calorie pack even though it may be a package of cookies or chips, etc. As many have mentioned, taxing and warning labels on tobacco products has not stopped people from buying and using them so it probably won't stop people buying and using "bad for you food" either. The real issue might be how to make healthy food (fresh F & V) cheaper to buy than unhealthy food (boxed foods) so that is how people would trend toward. It would also probably help resolve many health issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes. - 4/20/2011   9:30:30 AM
  • 64
    I wonder how many were diverted from smoking by the warning label. - 4/20/2011   9:30:11 AM
  • 63
    So does that mean that a bag of raw almonds or an avocado would need a warning label b/c they are high in fat? Or an orange b/c it is high in sugar? I don't think it is necessary for the government to get involved at this level. I'd rather see them discourage the use of chemical additives at the manufacturing level. - 4/20/2011   9:29:43 AM
    I don't think most people need a warning label to tell them something has more than 5 ingredients or that something is unhealthy. Obviously a cupcake is not the better choice compared to an apple. If people want to eat something they will eat it. I think it's not the end of the world if one eats a cupcake one day. - 4/20/2011   9:01:16 AM
    Warnings and taxes have done nothing for smoking and drinking. Soda is not the problem. People cook at home as well, so are you going to tax bacon and short ribs and bbq sauce? People also don't exercise, are we going to tax the couch? - 4/20/2011   8:22:01 AM
  • 60
    I would prefer to still be allowed some freedom. I really don't think we can or should try to legislate people's eating habits. Enough is enough.
    Martha - 4/20/2011   8:15:15 AM
  • 59
    So many good comments... I don't have much to add except to say that if I want a cupcake I'll eat it - tax or no, warning label or no. It's my decision and ultimately it's up to me to take responsibility for that decision. I don't expect the government to save me from myself. I do like some of the comments others have made about POSITIVE reinforcement by rewarding those for making good choices (e.g. employers who are financially rewarding employees for losing a certain amount of weight, tax credits for exercise equipment, gym memberships and/or weight loss programs). We give tax credits on washers, dryers and other home improvements that are "Energy Efficient" so why not give equal incentives to people trying to live healthy lives? I still think our country, in some areas, is more re-active than pro-active. Let's worry more about prevention and then we won't need to worry so much later about the effects of it. Insurance will cover gastric bypass surgery ONCE you get morbidly obese, but where was that insurance coverage for weight loss and nutrition classes to keep you from getting there in the first place? As some have stated, fresh foods are still looked at as more expensive than the junk food that's so easy and cheap to acquire. Maybe we as a country should look into investing more heavily in our farmers who can make produce cheaper and more abundant. - 4/20/2011   8:13:58 AM
    just what we need more goverment control and more taxes - 4/20/2011   8:13:43 AM
  • 57
    Its not like the processed food and fast food companies are just out to make us all fat. Can you seriously see a bunch of slim people sitting at a table with sales charts and fat graphs, laughing as Americans get bigger and bigger? They're out to make a product that they can produce cheaply and sell for a profit, and guarantee that it will keep making profit by making it taste good. Sugar, fat, and salt are the ways to get this flavor.

    If we need revenue that bad, I have a long list of opinions on things that are either illegal, untaxed, or minimally taxed that I think should be taxed, taxed more, or regulated as an industry. I suppose that with hype about our obesity crisis, taxing junk food would be a way for legislators to appear to do something about it. That doesn't mean its the answer to obesity.

    I know, and most of us here on Spark know, that no one puts food in our mouths except us. Shifting the blame to the food or whoever made it is a disgusting lack of personal responsibility and, I think, backbone, given the amount of information and assistance that's out there. It makes me especially angry when parents with obese children blame the food or the company. Who bought your children that food? Who fed it to them?

    Unfortunately, I see that the trend in America is to consistently blame others for personal failures. That includes eating poorly and refusing to eat healthful foods and offer them to the family to eat. If it will gain revenue that we need, go ahead. Tax it. For some people it will be the last-ditch effort to deter them from feeding nutritionally empty foods to their children and to themselves. - 4/20/2011   8:08:49 AM
  • 56
    When I have ate on impulse in the past, price never slowed me down.

    So...instead of talking about taxing junk food, how about some TAX INCENTIVES on things like exerecise equipment, gym memberships, organic food? Why are we always looking to punish by tax...lets reward by relieving the tax burdens. If we have to live in a nanny state, lets at least have some positive reinforcement from the nanny. Who knows...maybe it could lead to folks getting back some sence of personal responsibility for their own health! - 4/20/2011   7:48:19 AM
  • 55
    Really??? What would they tax next....water? How about some personal responsibility? Each and every one of us should focus on making our own good choices, and stop trying to control everyone else. People know what types of food are healthy and which are not. Information is out there, free for the asking, here on the SparkPeople website, at other Internet websites, at libraries, even from the Health Department in each state. Last time I checked, we still had freedom of choice. Let's use it wisely...and encourage others to do the same. - 4/20/2011   6:36:07 AM
  • 54
    Let's stop abdicating responsibility for what we do. No manufacturer of food will willingly warn you that their product is fattening. Enforcement will drive hidden calories even deeper under cover. Nuisance law suits like those against KFC and MacDonalds make me laugh - don't eat it if you're not going to get the desired nutrition from the food. Parents should take responsibility for teaching their children healthy eating habits, and stop blaming the fast food industry for their obese children. Make the effort to prepare wholesome meals.

    In my country we pay 14% added tax on processed foods - natural food like fresh fruit and veg, grains and meat is not taxed. This encourages us to opt for fresh instead of ready made, especially amongst the lower income groups where bread and maize forms the staple of their diets. A burger or a pizza is a treat, not a meal. - 4/20/2011   6:09:03 AM
  • 53
    Labels should list ADDED SUGAR! Many foods have naturally occurring sugar, but it's a challenge to know how much of the total grams of sugar is added to a food. That's the only additional info I'd like to see on food labels. - 4/20/2011   5:25:04 AM
    I just want the nutritional info posted to see before making my choice but even this is problematic. According to The End Of Overeating, restaurant calorie estimates may be significantly off- about 33% low to 200% high.

    The warning label does not seem to be hurting the tobacco industry, nor are the "sin" taxes imposed by many states.

    An argument for imposing an obesity tax is that the individual is likely to need higher medical costs, and once the health has decreased to the point of disability, it is usually the public's metaphorical nickle paying the bill.

    Legislating what constitutes "junk" food (vegetarians might argue meat is junk!) is problematic too. Junk food is in the eye of the beholder. Is a milkshake junk? It has dairy, which is supposed to be good. It also has cholesterol, fat, and sugar, and who knows what else. A milkshake from one source might differ greatly from that of another.

    Things which are deep fried contain more calories and therefore might be junk, but not all deep fried items are equally bad nutritionally, some are better than others (I won't defend deep fried butter, which I heard was the novelty at state fairs last year, deep fried butter is just wrong!)

    We should bear the responsibility for our choices, but I know a multigenerational super morbidly obese family and don't think they have a clue as to wise nutrition and eat out daily. Two generations have undergone gastric bypass surgery, paid for by medicaid/medicare. The mother learned to correct her behavior, the daughter has not, and it is a matter of time before the granddaughter starts to balloon in size, and in 20 years the taxpayer will be paying for her gastric bypass surgery too.

    An obesity tax should not be considered a punishment, but a means to pay for the medical care which will result in an increasing segment of the population as the obesity epidemic continues. I would support a tax where the monies are going to medical care and nutritional education. - 4/20/2011   4:52:05 AM
  • 51
    I think the concept of warning labels, higher taxes on unhealthy foods (If anything here, why not rather lower taxes/prices on healthy food, instead of making everything expensive.) etc are all ridiculous. People need to take personal responsibility for what they eat, it's not the governments responsibility or the producers. I think the only regulation there should be is that everything sold needs to be sent with nutritional information and ingredients list, then it's the responsibility of the consumer to make educated choices for themselves.
    That I ate crap that made me topple at 325lbs was *my* fault. The concept of blaming anybody but me for the choices I made for myself makes my brain numb. - 4/20/2011   1:07:38 AM
  • 50
    I think there are people who care about what they eat and people who don't. Putting a warning label on something isn't going to change that. There are warning labels on cigarettes. Sadly I have friends who still smoke. - 4/19/2011   11:16:54 PM
  • 49
    I don't want to live in a NANNY STATE.

    We have so many warning labels that they are being ignored. Adding a warning label to "junk food" won't change people's behavior. Besides what is "junk food"? In Washington state we had a tax on candy and beverages. Granola was considered candy (no flour in it), but a Twix bar wasn't (it has flour). So who is going to decide what is suitable food for a family? Some mucky-muck in Washington D.C.(who may or may not know anything about nutrition) or a parent that knows the needs of his/her family?
    The problem is not the candy bar or the doughnut or the cookies - the problem is the quantity and frequency that is served.
    - 4/19/2011   11:05:05 PM
  • MELLY3183
    I don't think these types of foods should have a warning label. People know the repercussions of overeating, ignorance is bliss and people need to open their eyes to what they are bringing on to themselves. - 4/19/2011   10:09:47 PM
  • 47
    Even taking a tax into account, the healthiest nutritional choices would still be out of reach for a lot of people in lower income brackets. Having worked with many people in this situation, I have noticed that, if not for the cost of healthier foods as compared to junk food, there are people who would choose the healthier food. But the price of organic fruits and vegetables buys a lot more chips and cookies, especially generic brands. Adding a warning label would probably add to the guilt of those who already feel bad that they can't afford something better. I think finding a way to make healthier food options more affordable would be a better solution. As a side note, does this study take income and cost of the snacks into account? - 4/19/2011   9:09:20 PM
    You know, I know, people know what to eat & what not to eat...all the "warning" you need is already on the package. - 4/19/2011   8:15:27 PM
  • 45
    Brocolli needs no label, no fancy advertising, no warning.
    Bring your own bags, go to a growers Market.
    Make your own decisions. If it is advertised it probably has too many chemicals and is definitely processed. If it is advertised don't buy it. No more taxes, more education, less power to multi-national pharma-nutrient companies. That's my 2 cents. - 4/19/2011   8:13:01 PM
  • 44
    Cigarettes have warning labels and some people still smoke. I don't think warning labels are needed. Nutrition facts are there, people will have to make the choice if they want to take notice of them or not. "should I indulge or not" "is it worth it or not" The choice is theirs. - 4/19/2011   6:57:47 PM
  • 43
    Warning labels will not stop anyone. The information is out there, people, if interested, will look for it. - 4/19/2011   6:20:04 PM
    I feel that instead of Warning Labels and Taxes there needs a way to encourage people to eat more healthy items and do more sports especially for their children. A Tax Credit that is based on your children being enrolled in sports would be a great start! A small rebate for healthy purchases, but that would be hard to do! Education is the best way! Start young and teach our children well! - 4/19/2011   5:55:17 PM
  • 41
    Sin taxes to try and curb behavior may work to some degree, but that doesn't make them fair, just or ethical. First of all, everyone's body is different, and we all have the right and responsibility to make the food choices we deem right for us. Lastly, sales taxes of all kinds are disproportionately hard on people with lower incomes. Education and labeling are the best response to try and help people live healthier lives. - 4/19/2011   2:24:55 PM
  • -AMCO-
    1:35:25 PM
    Have warning labels and taxes helped reduce smoking or drinking? Why does the government think warning labels and a tax will deter the consumer to make a better choice? If the person is not willing to change it will never happen no matter how much tax is imposed.
    This is what I was going to say. If people WANT to eat the junk, smoke, drink, etc they are going to, warning labels and taxes or not. - 4/19/2011   2:23:57 PM
  • 39
    Just what we need, more taxes. And one that is aimed at lower income brackets to boot. Absolutely ridiculous! - 4/19/2011   2:21:55 PM
  • 38
    I don't think some foods really require a warning label, however after tracking my calories I have unearthed a few surprises. What I do think needs to be acted on is nutrition education in schools. I covered the American Revolution about 3 different times throughout my grade-school years but didn't get any dietary education until college when I opted to take food chemistry and nutrition. A lot of heavy and/or unhealthy eaters don't know enough about what their body needs and how its affected by what it's getting. - 4/19/2011   2:00:31 PM
    Unfortunately, taxing food won't change we eat. If the tax were used to pay the costs associated with the food then it would have an effect. These costs are everything from the health impacts to the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.

    For example: if I want a candy bar and there is an additional 3 cent tax on it, I'll still buy it. But if that 3 cents is charged on all candy bars and the money is used to offer cooking classes at community centers or to make streets safer so that families will spend more time outside exercising, the tax will have an effect. If the money isn't going toward solving the problem it's making it worse.

    We are all on this website because we wanted to take control of our health. We all realized that we needed to learn more and the resources that this website offers help us toward our goals. Many people cannot access the internet or wouldn't even look for something like this, so they need something that they can use. Programs to help people quit smoking cost a lot of money, as do programs to help people loose weight. Where should this money come from? - 4/19/2011   1:58:21 PM
  • 36
    I don't know, there's also a backlash against healthy for some people. I think if you put potato chips in a bag with big red letters that said "YOU SHOULDN'T EAT THIS" then that would be the first thing they'd pick. - 4/19/2011   1:53:53 PM
  • 35
    Many of the people on here arguing against the tax are actually unknowingly arguing FOR the tax. The study referenced in this blog showed that people choose what to eat with their wallet -- if something costs less, they will buy it. Walk into any supermarket and you'll see that an apple costs about the same as a chocolate bar. Now imagine if the apple cost LESS than the chocolate bar! People that would previously buy the chocolate bar because they claimed it was cheaper will no longer have that excuse not to buy the apple. Maybe now they'll buy the apple. Maybe they'll still buy the candy bar. But I think all of us sparkers would agree that just about every person that starts buying apples instead of chocolate bars will feel better about themselves and will be healthier for it. - 4/19/2011   1:47:15 PM
  • 34
    Yet another tax is something I don't need in my life...not that I eat much junk food but I also don't believe I should be taxed for the one candy bar I may eat every other month....
    A label however isn't a horrible doesn't cost the consumer anything and can make the consumer not have to take the time to read the label...not all consumers are educated enough to know what is good or a busy person and wouldn't mind weeding out yet another nutritional facts label! That doesn't make me lazy...that gives me just a little more time in my busy life to fit in another mile to my daily run!!! - 4/19/2011   1:36:20 PM
  • JUDIEB1946
    I don't think it would make a difference for me. If I want it, I will get/eat it but will watch how often and how much. Like ice cream, for the first time in about 6 months I had some but was a single serve container. We have had some in the house the last month or so and I have not had an urge, but when I do, I will eat it - 4/19/2011   1:36:19 PM
    Have warning labels and taxes helped reduce smoking or drinking? Why does the government think warning labels and a tax will deter the consumer to make a better choice? If the person is not willing to change it will never happen no matter how much tax is imposed. - 4/19/2011   1:35:25 PM
  • ENZO1979
    While I see the logic, I think it is too subjective as to what would be classified as "junk food" and "regular" (or whatever they would call it). Maybe just mandating more changes to how easily the nutrition facts are show might be easier (front of package, easy to read). - 4/19/2011   1:34:56 PM
  • 30
    I think the nutritional facts are warning enough. It is sad that people don't take the time to look at those labels and ingredients or to care about what they are eating, but adding a 'bad' labels won't deter people from buying junk. There are too many 'bad' foods out there that are marketed as health food as well, so where is the line drawn? It's up to the consumer to CARE about their health - that can't be forced on them. - 4/19/2011   1:12:56 PM
  • 29
    I am still a teenager at heart I guess because I am just rebellious enough that I don't like anyone trying to force me to eat less junk food. I might buy it in spite of the increased tax. I do read labels but I pretty much know the processed foods have "junk" in them and since I choose to be healthy, more often than not I choose the "natural" foods that do not contain the junk. - 4/19/2011   1:11:29 PM
  • 28
    They already come with warning labels but we call them NUTRITIONAL FACTS!! If they are too lazy too read, they probably aren't exercising! - 4/19/2011   1:08:19 PM
  • 27
    I think that less people would go down an aisle named "Junk Food" rather than "Snack" - 4/19/2011   1:06:16 PM
    Yes, and the tax needs to be enough to really make people stop and wonder. The money needs to go to healthcare and medicare, since those are going to be the people using it all up on their 20+ pills of insuline, blood sugar checking machines, strips, etc. I'm not saying people should never have junk food, but in moderation the tax isnt going to bother them. its the people who live off it that are going to get the mental and financial hit. this tax also needs to apply to all restaurants, not just large chains. - 4/19/2011   1:00:48 PM
  • 25
    I don't think junk food labels or adding tax will keep people who want to eat junk food from eating it. For those of us who are interested in what we eat, easier to read nutrition facts do and will help. - 4/19/2011   12:56:47 PM
  • 24
    No, what ever happen to personal responsibility - 4/19/2011   12:51:26 PM
  • REDSHOES2011
    I don't think so, if people want to eat they will eat.. People don't think about their health, despite all the other warnings already around.. Until there is a huge world campaign confronting peoples eating habits every where.. It will not stop people whom want junk.. - 4/19/2011   12:47:43 PM

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