Let Them Eat Grams

Recently, I read that there is a move afoot to refurbish the nutrition labels found on foods in the U.S. with the goal of making them more user-friendly. In particular, units we Americans hardly ever use (such as grams) would be replaced with “measures the consumer can visualize,” such as “teaspoons.” Another tweak would be assuring that packages meant to be eaten in one sitting display nutritional content for the whole package and call it “one serving,” instead of breaking the packages into several servings to provide the illusion that there are fewer calories in a package than is the case.

I brought this up at a family meal recently as a point of innocent conversation and found myself caught in the middle of a fracas. My spouse violently disagrees that overhauling nutrition labels is a good idea. In his mind, people in general are too lazy and should be expected to work a bit at getting their information. His perspective comes from academia, where he has witnessed what he calls “excessive dumbing down” of curricula and materials. My perspective is that of a former public health researcher and graduate of a “Plain Language” program in health communications. In my mind, public communications that impact health should be as accessible as possible to the intended audience so that they may make informed choices.

I am loath to admit that there is a point with which I can agree from the “Stop Dumbing It Down” camp, but I can see the logic in some narrow cases (yes, students should take the initiative and look things up once in a while, maybe on their ever-present phones). However, having seen government communiques that even I cannot understand with a Ph.D. and two masters degrees and a lot of reading and writing experience, I worry about who gets to decide when a piece of written communication is in the “right’ form. The nutrition label changes are based on audience research, which gives the recipient a voice in the process of exchanging information. I was taught in Plain Language class that organizing and phrasing information so that the reader can easily access it is not “dumbing it down” but making it useful. Willful ignorance of the readers’ needs serves only the writer.

If I were to be paranoid, I would think the obscure nature of the government writing I read was a deliberate attempt to meet the letter and not the spirit of the law while forestalling any real, actionable information delivery. For example, one piece addressed to parents of kids headed to court sported several lengthy words and bore no contact information at all (translation: don’t give me no questions). More likely, it was written by well meaning persons who are unaware that the average reading level is sixth grade and that it might be helpful to beta test your writing with a sample of intended recipients before release. The authors might, on the other hand, like to hire a former anthropology student of mine who, when I pointed out that her term paper title had nothing to do with the paper, smugly replied, “My writing professors told me a title shouldn’t give the story away.” There’s another person with a gift for ignoring the needs of the intended recipient.

The nutrition label dust-up may well go the way of past long-term marital spats with no useful outcome in sight (example: the long running “Is photography art?” dispute from the early years of our marriage, which sometimes turned loud). Or, if we are lucky, it will become the subject of parody, in the same league as “Sandwiches must be cut vertically” (which generally provokes laughter). Hopefully, we can eventually agree on this one sliver of a point: writers need to understand their own intentions and recognize that if these include imparting knowledge to an audience, they may have to compromise on the language used.

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