Weighing Out Nutrition Labels

Perusing the soup bar at Harvey Mudd, I noticed something unusual about the label: along with the name of the dish, it had all of the nutritional information. Remembering when Malott Commons had these labels on its food, I had a strong sense of déjà vu. If you didn’t eat at Malott last year, you missed the stirrings caused by the addition of nutrition facts to the food labels. A debate emerged regarding the new labels. In the end, Malott reverted the labels to the way they were. Today, as before, Malott has a white binder of nutrition facts by the exit.

The other day I decided to approach this behemoth of a binder. What started as a search for a food I was about to eat turned into an expedition through protein, grams of fat and calories. At a certain point I forgot about the dish I was looking for and started looking at the nutrition facts for other foods. What I found was surprising.

I’ve heard many arguments against the labels with nutrition facts. One of the main points made last year was that the facts ruin favorite dining hall foods. But, looking at these nutrition facts, I was pleasantly surprised to find that one chocolate chip cookie has only 173 calories.

Reading these nutrition facts, I started questioning my preconceptions about what is healthy. I’ve heard horror stories about pizza, but the nutrition facts revealed that it depends on the pizza. One slice of cheese pizza has just 286 calories. Pair that with a salad and that’s an acceptable portion of food. Here I was, reading these nutrition facts, expecting to lose all interest in food. Instead, I realized that I had been unreasonably paranoid.

However, some guilty pleasure foods are exactly as horrible as I had imagined. I could have four cups of frozen yogurt and still eat fewer calories than I would if I ate the Mississippi Mud Cake, which has 896 calories.

When I closed the food guide, I was confused. Foods I thought were bad turned out to be okay. Foods I thought would be just a little bad were horrible. I decided to ask what other Scripps students thought of these labels. Mary Griffith (’12) opposed the labels: “We are bombarded with nutrition and diet and health talk every day, with people saying we aren’t good enough and need to work out more. We shouldn’t have to be bombarded at the dining hall as well.” Rebecca Smith (’12) voiced a common perspective when she said that she doesn’t look at nutrition labels, adding that the labels are more beneficial than harmful and don’t create self-consciousness. Said Smith, “People who are going to be overly sensitive about food will be that way, whether the labels are there or not.”

Opinions on this sensitive topic—so frequently connected to discussions of disordered eating—will probably always reflect a tension between passionately-held opinions. But I, for one, would find the reappearance of nutrition information on the food labels reassuring.