Need to make a quick trip to the grocery store? Good luck. The amount of time you'll need to scrutinize food labels is about to get more maddening.
Earlier this week, the Ontario Medical Association called for the introduction of graphic warning labels on junk food – similar to those displayed on cigarette packages – to combat obesity. Although well-intentioned, the proposed measure would add to an already dizzying array of food labels: no-fat, low-fat, probiotic, free-range, free-run, Omega 3-enriched, lutein-enhanced, fair trade, gluten-free, nitrate-free and dolphin-friendly.
Plus a few more experiments – some more successful than others.
The message: Food does not just land on your table. This label tells shoppers how many grams of carbon-dioxide emissions were involved in manufacturing and transporting their food.
The messengers: British grocery giant Tesco and the environmental consulting organization Carbon Trust.
The impact: Early this year, Tesco announced that it was abandoning carbon labels because of the onerous work required to compile them. The company also lamented that other grocery stores failed to follow its lead; unless there are a variety of low-carbon alternatives to choose from, details on emissions are not all that meaningful to consumers.
The message: One fish is not like another: overfishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution and rising ocean temperatures are threatening many species. This label flags "sustainable" options. Guides point out at-risk and endangered fish.
The messengers: SeaChoice, operated in part by the David Suzuki Foundation; the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise; the international Marine Stewardship Council
The impact: Given the number of factors that determine whether fish are sustainable – including the species, stock size and where and how fish are caught – these labels often give consumers oversimplified recommendations. A study in the journal Marine Policy last year found that 31 per cent of fish stocks certified by the Marine Stewardship Council had been overfished.
The message: Real is real. Canada is one of the largest producers of genetically modified foods, and it's estimated that up to 70 per cent of the food we consume includes genetically modified components. Although Health Canada has not identified any health risks, those leery of genetically altered food can seek out products certified as "non-GMO."
The messengers: Food producers and retailers who voluntarily adopt labelling programs such as the Non-GMO Project.
The impact: The jury is out. The Non-GMO Project has a long list of verified products – cereals, dairy, spices, fruits and vegetables – but its seal of approval does not mean the food is completely GMO-free (there is a risk that crops can be contaminated).
The message: Careful what you drink. Sulphites, naturally produced during the fermentation of wine, can trigger adverse reactions such as hives or nausea. Those sensitive to the compound should look for another bottle.
The messengers: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency introduced enhanced labelling for food allergens last year, calling for companies of all kinds to include sulphites above 10 ppm in their lists of ingredients
The impact: All wines contain some sulphites. If shoppers really want to avoid them, organic wines tend to have little or no added sulphur dioxide, commonly used to prevent spoilage. Still, even wines that carry the label "no added sulphite" can contain small amounts.