Should Junk Food Carry a Warning Label?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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I guess I should also be taxed for sitting on my couch? We are being taxed for ridiculous things. And people would fight it too much. I'm okay with the label showing the warning. Too many times I've bought what I thought was Healthy and found it to be worse than the junk food I wanted in the first place. I think warning labels will help take the sheep clothing off of those deceptive foods. I've always said I wish produce and fresh meat cost less. I guess taxing the other foods would make that happen, but not in an effective way. Report
Although it would be nice if warning labels were read and heeded, this seems problematic.

First, as others have pointed out, people don't pay attention to tobacco and alcohol warnings. Second, many people are very constrained by finances and accessibility in terms of what's available for them to buy.

I think perhaps guidelines in bigger print (the nutritional info is TINY) might be useful but warnings of any kind may tend to demonize those who are overweight. Some health insurance companies already charge more based on BMI and yet most states don't require helmets for motorcyclists and those injuries cost the insurance companies, health care providers, governments and taxpayers a fortune.

There are often downsides to even the best policies and do we trust our legislatures to come up with good policies. Report
This is just rediculous. To what end? Who gets to decide what foods are junk? What if you are looking for foods with more fat because you aren't getting enough? What about Olive Oil, it's fatty? Seriously, though, either you care and you read labels now, or you don't care and you won't. Trying to trick people will be ineffective. If I'm walking down the snack food isle looking for an afternoon snack for my lunch box, I've already walked past the apples and carrots. So what if I buy the twinkie knock off instead of the twinkie because it has 1 less fat gram so it doesn't have to have the label? Does that one box of twinkies really effect my overall health? It's more cumulative than that. There are so many more meaningful ways to attack this problem. This one just seems heavy handed and ineffectual. Report
Who says fat is unhealthy... Not all fat is equal... Healthy food normally doesn't come in a packet... So why label? Report
Unfortunately, warning labels will not stop the consumer if they desire the product. Yes, I believe making the unhealthy more expensive than the healthy would help. That's hitting people in a place they are aware of, their pocketbook. However, there are those who will eat the wrong things because they are raised that way. It's really hard to go against the environment-but it is possible with the pocketbook and education! Report
I think a label that WARNS and also includes Portion Size along with a Better Alternative would be great. Manufacturers would hate having to put any competition for their own product on front like "buy dried fruit" instead of a chocolate & raisin candy bar. Report
YES! Things like high fructose corn syrup is bad for you and people don't know why, they just think "oh it's just like regular sugar". No, it is worse than regular sugar. It gets processed by our bodies faster and is a faster route to diabetes. More information is good! Report
I believe the nutritional information should be provided, the individual needs to read this label and make a decision based on their nutritional education. The individual is also responsible to read and learn how to care for their body. Report
Putting warning labels on junk food will not stop those who want to eat it from eating it. It's a waste of money. The content labels are a great idea and this is as far as it needs to go. Making produce and healthy food easier and cheaper to obtain is the issue. Additionally, making people want to eat produce and healthier food is also an issue. At one of the convenience stores, they came up with the idea of offering lots of healthy options such as fruit bowls, hummus and vegetable trays, etc. to frequent travelers such as truckers. None of it sold and they ended up throwing it out and discontinuing the concept. At Chili's, they offered the shot glass desserts as a healthier way of consuming a dessert that was in a smaller portion. They didn't sell. Shot glass desserts are no longer on their menu. If people want to eat it, they will eat it regardless of warning labels. Report
After just watch MEAT GLUE, I am not sure that the government is a good watchdog. I don't think that it would matter, if I really really want something, then I am going to have it even if it is bad. An occassional treat is acceptable. It is sterotyping all people overweight are (forgive me for sounding mean, it is not my thinking) lazy and uneducated, when in fact, there are other reasons for a person being overweight, such as a medical conditition. Report
In Canada, we have the most disgusting warning labels on cigerettes but I don't think it helped much. When they first came out about 10 years ago, there may have been some drop in smokers but I think many of the people started smoking again. I think it would be the same with warning labels on junk food. I tell my husband all the time how unhealthy many of the foods he eats are but he doens't care, even when I show him the facts. Report
I think this is a great idea! I see that some people say that people know what is unhealthy, but really a lot of people don't understand the FULL IMPACT of these unhealthy foods on your body processes. They need some in depth education if they are to truly understand the effects on your body, your heart, your brain! Seriously, I didn't understand until I had read a couple books (one having to do with moods and food and a nutrition book that explains how nutrients interact with your body processes).

If it helped cigarettes, it'll help junk foods. But I think we need to go a step further and require nutrition education in highschool. This is about making healthy, happy people in life and in the workforce. Report
I don't think warning labels are necessary. People know junk food is not healthy. They eat it anyway. The government should not and really cannot regulate what people eat, so far as what they decide to put in their shopping carts. There are all types of government programs informing people of healthy choices, and isn't that enough? To regulate junk food is kind of overkill, I think.

And honestly? I strongly, very strongly doubt that a warning label would be a deterrent to junk food consumption. Report
I don't believe the government needs to monitor anything I eat. Sadly, our government is incapable of protecting our borders. The last thing they need to worry about is what I or my family choose to consume. Warning labels don't seem to impact smokers so I can't imagine that there would be any affect on poor food choices. I believe a person just has to reach the point where they choose to eat healthy foods at their own pace. Report
My husband and I discussed this, in a way, earlier today. I think more than anything, the serving sizes should emphasized. I don't think it is right for someone to "punish" people from eating specific things as nothing is off limits as long as it is used in moderation---however, I do see a great need for restaurants to control their portion sizes. If the food you ordered was in line with the food pyramid, not only would you be eating the appropriate amounts, but the price could then be lowered as well! In this economy, why are we paying for a box of pasta on your plate when you only need half of a cup? Tax those choices! Report
as much as I think it might be a good idea but it has me going back to the idea that the government will start regulating food intake, like where you can smoke cigarrettes. you will have to have a card to buy food and if you buy too much they will stop you form buying. candy will become black market and people won't be backing weed on the streets, it will be hershey bars!

come one, i can understand regulating/labeling drugs, alchohol, and cigarretts, but food? in this day and age where weightloss is America's Idol and God i've never meat anyone who didn't know an apple was good for you and a snickers was bad. Report
It might help in some cases anyway.
A warning label won't stop me. If I want to eat it, I'll eat it. Report
I think the stuff should be banned all together. It would be nice to have someone protect me from myself. Sure, my diet is no ones problem but my own, but I'll take all the help I can get. Report
I think warning labels and taxes are a lousy idea. Warning labels, unless very discreet, would be annoying. I can just magine folks glaring at heavyset folks buying products with such labels, even though it is none of their business.

Such taxes are punitive and discriminatory. We need to be able to make choices ourselves; some want to focus on fats, others sugars or carbs, and so on. I wish the labels we have would be more honest, as folks have mentioned, showing all sugars, whatever their names. Any package illustration should not show more than a single serving. I'm just dreaming, lol; nobody will do this without additional regulations and penalties.

I also believe folks in general (and so-called experts) are disregarding emotional issues related to weight, too. Until we address bullying, discrimination, abuse, and other issues that can lead to emotional eating, until we embrace our fellow men and women as lovable just the way they are, we won't conquer the "obesity problem." Just my opinion....

Don't just blame parents, either. My daughter provided a fairly healthy diet to my grandson, and the daycare provider printed out healthy menus she gave the parents. Later we learned that at least 3 days a week, she was instead running errands with the kids in the car, and McD's was actually what she gave the preschoolers! NOT what my daughter practices. My grandson adores veggies, especially broccoli. Needless to say, this caregiver does not watch the kids any more, but it is an example of a healthy diet not being only the parents' responsibility. Report
Sure it should carry a warning label. I think it should read:

Warning: Eating this food will cause you to break out in fat all over your body!! Eat with Caution in Very Small Portions. Report
It wouldn't do a bit of good! Report
I don't think warning labels will help. We all know junk food is full of fat, salt and sugar. I totally agree about the cigarettes, warning labels or not, people who want to smoke or eat junk, will. Report
Why woul warning labels help? People know smoking is bad for you but they still do it. People know drinking to excess is bad for you but they still do it. Heroin has never been publicised as a health panacea but people still risk everything to take it. Better to remind people that they are responsible for their life and actions, you cannot always sue someone else and say "it was not my fault" if the media is to be believed most of the people who eat junk food to excess sit on their tush all day watching television, can they really have missed the words telling them that eating higly processed additive filled high calorie junk will not make you fiter or live longer? So what good another warning? Report
We have too many taxes as it is, and too much government control. The only ppl who will buy less because of tax are the poorest segment who can hardly afford food at all. Report
Taxing and warning labels on foods is reee-diculous. It's just more government control. If voters allow this kind of moronic legislation, it will only breed more of the same and if you're beginning to feel as if we live in a nanny state, wait. NO WAY. Report
Legislation is NOT the way to go, especially with the budgetary constraints we have now.
The lobbyists will contribute to warping the rules to the point that a 6-pack of candy bars will be "nutritious" if it has the essence of blueberry and almond crumbs are visible with a microscope.

The education about nutrition has so much stuff to keep track of and a lot of details seem to be conflicting with other guidelines. Its no wonder we give up on it... Report
Who is going to pay all the people necessary to carry this kind of "rule" down to the lowest common denominator?? Government doesn't have enough people to watch the food supply as it is. And please don't whisper to the health insurance companies the idea of starting "concentration camps" for overweight people, so they lose weight right away and are "healthier", that idea would fly with some people too. Report
Maybe helpful, but probably not. People focus on what they want. Its like the cereal commercials: they tell the parents all the healthy ingredients that are added (usually vitamins) but they make no mention whatsoever of all the sugar they contain. And, they always show a huge bowlful, probably 3x a regular serving. For me, a game changer would be to print in letters as large as the name the amount of calories and portion size. That might startle a few people.
TerrBear Report
Warning labels will only stop a small number of people, and probably not for that long. For example, cigarettes around here have large warnings, both written and visual, and the packages are hidden behind doors in the stores. Sellers can't tell you the brands they have, nor are they allowed to open the doors to show you what other kinds they have if your brand is out of stock. BUT there is no shortage of people still smoking, including teenagers.
There is more than enough government interference, personal accountability is lost by what seems like the majority of people. Who decides where the line between healthy and unhealthy is? It is easy when you talk about and apple versus a bag of doritos, but gets blurry between different brands of peanut butter, or even the difference between chocolate, 2% and skim milk. And the ongoing debate between natural butter and non-hydrdgenized margarine. There is a ook out there that states a bag of doritos are healthier then a bag of pretzels. All depends what your idea of healthy is excess salt or msg, fat or sugar, natural or manufactured. Report
I don't think warning labels would make a difference. People ignore warnings on plenty of other things. People will eat what they want because the product hasn't changed. Just the packaging. They'll believe "If it didn't kill me before, it won't kill me now" without thinking of the long term effects. Report
Absolutely not. We need less of the Nanny State and more personal accountability. Report
Who decides what is healthy? If I get fat can I use this as another reason to file a frivolous lawsuit? Get real. No to more government control and yest to people becoming more serious about their own health. Absolutely ludicrous.

If this were to work then we could make all of the illegal drugs legal, post warning labels and huge taxes end of the drug problems right? Just like smoking!

We do not need more taxes! What we need are people who need to be responsible for their actions. We need to educate people about the effects of food on the body. Dr. Oz does a good job of this. Report
In my opinion, Junk food does carry a warning label, it is the nutrition label on the foods you purchase.
Home made ones are harder to resist because they come with no labels and your friends make them for you to eat....
No, no, NO! Taxes on food of any specific kind are another area of my life that I don't want the government to stick its officious nose into. The state I live in taxes "prepared" foods" at a different (higher) rate than individual food items. Even prepared items that are actually decent (some frozen dinners fit in this category) are taxed.
You can still use good, raw ingredients to fix something totally non-nutritious - so should we have to report that we made a cake and had ice cream to the government? Would they require us to send in an additional "bad food" tax with our income tax?
If you are not smart enough to know what's good for you and what's not - that's your responsibility. It's also your responsibility to teach your children what the best choices are in foods.
Regardless of what you teach them, teenagers are going to stuff whatever tastes better and is quick. For many of them, they are so active their bodies metabolize anything - that's why I refer to them as kids. Young goats will even gnaw the labels off of cans - sort of like mammalian roaches.
A number of people have mentioned taxing cigarettes and people still smoke. Why not go back to the original sin tax in America - the tax on alcoholic drinks. It's currently at 100%+, and people still drink themselves into oblivion and even kill other people. At least with junk food you're only harming your own body. Report
Just what we need..... more government control. Report
Most people have a general understanding of what is healthy and what isn't. It is all a matter of choice. There is a tax on cigarettes and we all know about the reasons one should not smoke but despite that knowledge, people still choose to smoke. When healthier choices become more affordable for some, I think more people would be willing to eat a healthier diet. Unfortunately, we have become a society of convenience and the unhealthy foods are now easier and quicker to prepare than the more healthy options. It's much easier to pop something in the microwave opposed to taking the time to prepare a healthy meal. Report
I makes much more sense to tax things like alcohol and tobacco more than junk food. I believe in warning labels as they can be a deterrence, especially with parents buying food for kids. With that said, people will still make poor choices in food regardless of a tax or a warning label. You can't babysit everyone, and you can't save everyone from their poor choices. It is not the government's job, nor the general public's job to protect each individual from themselves. Report
We are a people of free will...from what you eat to the path you choose for salvation---thus being said, no to taxing what some agency will call "junk" food Report
I'm just imagining a new controversy: What do we label unhealthy? Some of us are concerned about sodium content, some sugar, some fat, some dairy. What I'm concerned about changes, and I now avoid most processed foods and foods containing flour, particularly wheat flour. Do we warn about ingredients we can't pronounce, sugar substitutes, wheat?

No, I just don't see this working. If we're concerned, we learn our bodies need and don't need, and read the labels. And judging from the FDA's monitoring and food guidelines to date, I wouldn't trust the government to accurately label less healthy choices. The FDA already works with industry groups; just imagine the lobbying by companies not to place warning signs on their foods, and the potential lawsuits. It's just not feasible. Report
I think a warning label would help those that are trying to eat healthy. Yes, It is up to consumer to care about their health. But unfortunately, a lot of people don't know enough about nutrition. Report
If we are going to be controlled over what we eat, then why not just ban it all together? Like the prohibition. Make it against the law to possess junk food. And if we are going to ban all "bad foods", then we should ban all processed foods. Isn't it true that with the processed foods, more illnesses occurred? Why don't we just implant a camera in everyone so that we can be monitored?

Obviously, a tax on junk food is not feasible or practical. Have we not already tried that with cigarettes? People still smoke. People still get sick and use the medical system and raise the costs for everybody. If we as a society truely wanted to ban bad things, then we would stop using them. The companies would have stopped producing them years ago and it would no longer be an issue. Report
Unfortunately not enough people read the nutritional facts. They might actually heed the advice of a warning label. We might as well try it! And to make junk food more expensive while making healthy foods LESS expensive might help as well. But some people are just going to eat total junk no matter what is done. Report
I think that would infringe too much on people's rights. There are nutritional facts, if people really wanted to they would read the facts. There are all sorts of excuses out there not too. Taxes and warning labels haven't pursuaded people from purchasing other things that are not healthy for you, why would it with food? If you buy a cupcake, you know it is unhealthy. People know what they are buying, I think companies just need to make healthier foods more affordable and less healthy foods more expensive. Afterall, more processing and ingredients go into those unhealthy foods. Report
I don't believe that the government has a place in taxing food items, healthy or not healthy. We need less government regulation, not more! Ron Paul 2012! Report
Oh, please. Cigarettes are highly taxed and have warning labels and people aren't deterred from smoking. All a tax would do is lower that state's debt, if the money was allocated for that purpose. Hey, maybe it would put a good dent in the deficit, tax away! :)

Seriously, though, the only people who would benefit from warnings already read labels. No one is dumb enough to think Cheetos are healthy (Real cheese! It must be healthy! Bull, no one thinks like that.), or that reduced fat Twinkies are better for you than say a Honey Bun. People who read labels actually care about what they put in their bodies, those who don't read them, don't care. So while they will clearly see what the health detriments of Ding Dongs are, they will buy and devour them, anyway. My obese mother is a perfect example. I have talked to her about label reading and healthy choices, and she still doesn't do it. It's because she pretends to want to do better, when she doesn't actually care (Case in point, I only allow my son to have fruit snacks and dark chocolate for a very occasional candy treat, and the fruit snacks must list fruit juice first on the ingredients list. She sees "Made with fruit juice and assumes it meets my standards and buys it without looking at the label, so I have to politely give them back to her.).

A lot of people who buy processed foods are on a tight budget and incorrectly assume that it is more expensive to cook from scratch than to use processed foods and eat chips instead of vegetables (a pound of carrots is less than a dollar, a one pound bag of chips runs $2-4 and doesn't fill you at all like carrots would. That math doesn't make sense, except maybe that they're not fully thinking about it.). Sure, all the ingredients to make stroganoff may be more expensive than a box of Hamburger Helper plus a pound of beef, but you could make a ton of stroganoff, plus use the leftover ingredients in countless more dishes, so it is actually cheaper in the long run to cook from scratch.

What we need is food education. When Jamie Oliver goes to a school and the children can't identify vegetables, there is clearly an education issue. Adults and children alike need to be taught about nutrition and cooking. There also needs to be education in food budgeting, teaching about seasonal produce, shopping for unit price, and understanding the value of ingredient leftovers (How to use or freeze extra produce, dairy, meat, etc so you don't waste and save money, and utilizing scraps for stocks instead of buying canned stock.), especially since a majority of those suffering from obesity and weight related illness are functioning on limited funds. These classes should be mandatory to receive food stamps and WIC. When I was pregnant, my husband and I had just married, my husband was in school, I was in the process of transferring schools, and no one would hire a pregnant girl, so money was very tight and we got on WIC. While we qualified for Food Stamps, I didn't want them. There was manditory education on breast feeding, but nothing about nutrition and budget cooking. I know from friends who have been on food stamps, they don't offer those classes, either. Since you have to have a very limited income to qualify for those programs, those on these forms of assistance desperately need to learn low cost grocery habits so they can cook healthy meals at home. I had a mother at a daycare I recently worked at who was on food stamps, and bought her kids candies, chips, cookies, and fruity drinks with very little juice with her food stamps card. Just as WIC cards only pay for approved items, the food stamp cards need to not pay for junk food. If the beneficiaries want junk food that bad, they can pay for it themselves, but of my tax money is paying for their food, I want them buying wholesome foods; whole wheat, fresh produce, lean meat, 100% juices and dairy with that money, not processed crap, soda, and all sugar fruit flavored beverages. Those programs are intended to nourish the recipients, not fatten them up with junk. WIC cards and vouchers only allow you to purchase certain items on WICs dime. Food stamps need to do the same. Report
A list of ingredients is more important then a warning label. If there is too much salt, fat, or sugar....don't buy it! If you can't pronounce it.....don't buy it! Report
That would never be effective. Report
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