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Social 'nutrition' labels - could consumer input improve food labeling?

Patterned after the nutrition labels we see on many food products, the social 'nutrition' labels promoted by Project Label ( are a way to leverage consumer knowledge to provide an idea of what impact a company's products are having on

  • personal health, nutrition and safety,
  • the social and community level,
  • and on a planetary, environmental level.

Each one of these areas is further broken down. How is explained in more detail on this page of the Project Label site.

Project Label is a site in public beta release that provides for consumer input. People can collect and post information in articles. Those articles are subsequently voted on by other consumers. The information which is collected in this way is then processed into the form of a social label. The steps on how this works are described here.

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Nutrition labels

Although food nutrition labels are the example after which this social labeling project is patterned, those nutrition labels themselves leave much to be desired and might profit from some consumer input.

The health authorities generally in charge of nutrition labeling are, for instance, prohibiting producers and sellers of foods and supplements from clearly stating the health properties of foods and the nutrients they contain. Consumers could fill an information void here, or could at least make it clear that there is a great need for good information.

Some of the prominently labeled information points such as cholesterol or high/low fat content are almost useless, at least in the way they are given. Cholesterol in itself is not a health issue, it is a vital substance we all need and manufacture in our livers. So there is little point in labeling cholesterol in foods. The label only prolongs the false idea that, in order to be healthy, we should avoid cholesterol at all costs.

Fat is not necessarily bad either, unless we are talking about trans-fatty acids, a kind of fat that has been oxidized and is therefore damaging. The "low fat" designation is really a misleading promotional device. The health impact of low fat diets is not scientifically proven to be universally positive.

Additives in foods are often designated with numbers. Those numbers are actually hiding the identity of the additive behind a code that isn't easily understandable to consumers. Ask any housewife whether she knows what's behind the designations of (in Europe) E 252, E 171 or E 516. And there are hundreds of those numbers. How are we, as consumers, expected to know that we are about to eat potassium nitrate, titanium dioxide and calcium sulphate when we see those three numbers on a label?

Origin of food

The geographic origin of food is another bit of information consumers are more and more interested in. That information is not normally provided on labels. If consumers want to avoid running up huge transport bills on the strawberries they eat or the milk they drink, they have no way of doing so. Going to the local farmers market may be the only way to be reasonably sure. Foods sold in supermarket could very well profit from "point of origin" labeling.

Where is my milk from ( is an example of a mobile phone (android) app that would decode the numbers found on milk cartons to tell you where the milk has been produced.

Clearly, there is much need for better information on all kinds of products, and consumer input might just be the way to achieve this.

This article was written on 20-04-2011 for the P2P Foundation blog