The Future of Food in the Cloud

The holiday season will soon be here, and the national pastime of over-indulging will be on full display. Retailers will sell and Americans will eat large amounts of food containing salt, fat, sugar, cholesterol, gluten and a wide range of other hard-to-pronounce ingredients. Product labels alert us to the presence of these ingredients and their potential impact on our waistline depending on the serving size.

That's good news for those who understand the information and want to make informed choices about the potential health effects of one product versus another and the appropriate amount to consume. The bad news is the world of nutrition is confusing, and what's considered a healthy diet can change from year to year depending on the latest fad diet or medical study. Even nutrition experts have differing interpretations of what's good and bad and in what quantities, so the average person doesn't stand a chance.

Take fat, for example. There are four types listed on the Kraft mayonnaise and Planters peanuts in my pantry. All of the calories in the mayo come from fat and most of it is of the polyunsaturated variety. Is that the good or bad kind? Not sure, but it tastes good on a sandwich. A smaller percentage of the calories in peanuts come from fat, but most of it is monounsaturated. If the presence of this information was intended to help us make more informed choices and eat healthier diets it seems to have accomplished the opposite. We are more confused and fatter than ever.

Despite this, product labels remain a battleground over the type of information they should contain and where it should be located. The most recent example involved the debate over disclosures regarding the presence of genetically modified ingredients. Food manufacturers won a victory when President Obama signed a law to create a creates a common sense national standard for GMO disclosure, effectively overturning Vermont's requirement that the presence of GMO ingredients be disclosed on labels. Instead, manufacturers can use a QR code to link to information on the Internet.

Product labels remain a battleground over the type of information they should contain and where it should be located.

Food manufacturers were never opposed to disclosing the GMO information. They just wanted a uniform national standard, as is often the case with regulatory matters, to avoid the cost, supply chain complexity and compliance issues associated with a patchwork of federal, state and local requirements. Meanwhile, the consumer activists who favored Vermont's requirement have vowed to continue the fight during the process of implementing the law.

Their efforts would be better channeled elsewhere than to resist the growing impact of the Internet and digital technology. It makes senses that the definition of a label would be extended to the digital world, like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) has done with its SmartLabel initiative. GMA developed and food manufacturers have embraced a solution that addresses the issue of widely varying information expectations among consumers and the space constraints of physical labels. It also recognizes that consumer behavior has changed dramatically. People already use their smartphones to make lists, receive coupons, and access loyalty programs, recipes, preparation methods, prices, and options for payment, pickup and delivery.

There will always be a segment of consumers who want to know everything there is to know about every ingredient, where it was grown, harvested, the wage rates of workers and the manufacturer's carbon footprint. Digital labels give these folks the ability to access endless information while others eat a second piece of pie.

Mike Troy

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