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For food labels, first calories, now carbon footprints?

Folks who balk at requirements that restaurants post nutrition data on their menus are going to love this idea: In addition to providing information about calories and fat content, how about an assessment of the food's impact on the environment?

As Friday's New York Times reported, Sweden is experimenting with placing carbon-emissions ratings on foods sold in restaurants and grocery stores.

The ratings tie in with a larger effort by the Swedish government to link personal and environmental health. The Swedes have issued guidelines for evaluating more than a dozen kinds of food, from fruits and berries to chicken, pork and beef, for their effects in both realms.

Those guidelines are being circulated among experts in other European nations. Should the guidelines and the new labeling system (which was created by farmer and food-labeling organizations), be embraced across the European Union, millions of people may find themselves thinking about greenhouse-gas emissions and varied agricultural landscapes as they shop for their suppers.

This is, of course, hardly the first time it's been pointed out that our food choices have environmental repercussions. Michael Pollan's been saying so for years; the movies King Corn and Food, Inc. traced food-production's effect on the environment.

But the new labeling system, should it go into widespread use, would give consumers the opportunity and burden of considering the broader implications of their food choices.

That may be a good thing, as long as environmental concerns don't steer people away from foods that are best for their personal health. From what I can see, that doesn't seem to be the case. For instance, the report cautions that certain species of wild-caught fish are in short supply and should be avoided, but it still recommends eating fish two or three times a week and offers environment-friendly options.

Otherwise, the report favors potatoes over rice and carrots over tomatoes. Overall, locally produced and organic foods are better for the environment than those shipped long distances, the report suggests.

I have to wonder, though, just how much information consumers can be asked to absorb when making food purchases. There's always the danger that overloading menus and grocery shelves with helpful suggestions might make people tune out food labels altogether. And that would be counterproductive.

What do you think about posting environmental-impact data on menus and food labels? Vote in today's poll and opine in the comments section.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Next: Do we really need front-of-package nutrition labels?


Every time we eat, we're making choices that directly impact the quality of the land, air and water, and the health of the farm families living and working in the midst of modern chemical agriculture. The more we can do to make these real costs visible to food consumers, the better off we'll all be. In case it's of interest, there's a new film out from the King Corn filmmakers (full disclosure: I'm one of them) that looks directly at these issues. It's called Big River, and there's a trailer and information on hosting a screening at

Posted by: curtisellis8 | October 26, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Instead of implementing arbitrary labels for things that are yet UNPROVEN, how about looking into the HISTORY OF THE GLOBAL WARMING DEBATE and see if you can connect the dots first...

"he story begins with an Oceanographer named Roger Revelle. He served with the Navy in World War II. After the war he became the Director of the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla in San Diego, California. Revelle obtained major funding from the Navy to do measurements and research on the ocean around the Pacific Atolls where the US military was conducting post war atomic bomb tests. He greatly expanded the Institute's areas of interest and among others hired Hans Suess, a noted Chemist from the University of Chicago. Suess was very interested in the traces of carbon in the environment from the burning of fossil fuels. Revelle co-authored a scientific paper with Suess in 1957—a paper that raised the possibility that the atmospheric carbon dioxide might be creating a greenhouse effect and causing atmospheric warming. The thrust of the paper was a plea for funding for more studies. Funding, frankly, is where Revelle's mind was most of the time."

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | October 26, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

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