Making Mark Bittman’s
Food Labeling Dream A Reality

Mark Bittman, the influential food writer and New York Times columnist wrote a visionary piece of journalism in yesterday’s New York Times. The article, My Dream Food Label, was an act of imagination from a mind firing on all cylinders, but it was more than that. It was an act of visionary leadership of the kind we most need at this particular moment in human history, when the question of whether we will sustain life on the planet (and whether we will do so in ways that uphold human dignity and the dignity of all life — which at this point is the only true option) must be grappled with in tangible, hands-on ways.

We are now at the natural end of the Industrial era, that era of unparalleled growth that brought a six-fold increase in wealth to the capitalist nations — often at the expense of people and the planet. We allowed industry to externalize the human and environmental costs of enterprise. It was easy to do when it appeared that we were not paying any particular price. We assumed our food supply was safe, that environmental measures were adequate, that someone was taking care. Of course, we are the only ones here. We are the ones who must take care — of each other and of our Earth.  Now that we are all aboard the same sinking ship, crossing the same troubled waters, we are coming to terms with the fact that we must rethink the way we do everything. It’s people like Bittman who are leading the way, helping to ferry us safely to the other side. They’re doing it with the force of their ideas.

Bittman’s idea is this: to adopt a color-coded food labeling system that uses familiar red-yellow-green light iconography to provide consumers with an easy way to evaluate the food they purchase for themselves and their families. Bittman proposes a three-pronged analysis that will categorize food as green, which means eat “freely”, yellow (eat “with restraint or consideration) or red (eat “rarely or never”). The three prongs? Nutrition, Foodness and Wellness.

The Nutrition analysis Bittman proposes would start with the nutritional information that already appears on our food packaging, with each food rated on a scale of 0 to 5 based on its nutritional content. A pasta sauce made from organic tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and no preservatives would earn a 5 rating, a fresh whole chicken would earn a 4 rating (because of the saturated fats), and a chocolate frosted super krispy krunchies cereal that derives most of its nutrients from additives would earn a 1.

The Foodness analysis, which is my personal rhetorical favorite, would assess a food product, again on a scale of 0 to 5, based on how close it is to being actual food (or what Bittman calls “real, unadulterated food” (emphasis mine).

The Welfare analysis, which is my personal conceptual favorite, would measure food on a scale of 0 to 5 based on the impact it’s production has on the overall welfare of everyone and everything involved, from the people who provide labor, to the animals, land, water, air and more, to the carbon footprint of producing and bringing the product to market.

It’s a brilliant, visionary idea. Bittman has taken a quantum leap in thinking, the kind that history now demands. Umair Haque, the economist and Harvard Business Review (HBR) blogger writes beautifully about what I’ll call “the quantum leap imperative” in his HBR blog post “Declare Your Radicalness.” It’s essential reading for anyone who cares about the future and what it’s going to take to get there. Haque’s overarching point is that half-measures will no longer do. We must think in radically different ways. Bittman has done just that. The next step for us all is to figure out how we can make Bittman’s vision or something like it a reality.

Bittman is one of the people whom I hope to have the opportunity to work with one day when I finally get around to founding The Revel Idea & Policy Institute, which is one of my most cherished long-range goals for Revel In It and our larger brand. The work of this Institute will be “to bring together creative minds from all walks of life to fashion creative solutions to the problems of our day,’ whether that’s how to reshape public education so that we are teaching children to think critically and creatively (and to build lives that reflect who they are and what they have to offer the world), or how to infuse some of the principles of deep ecology into the environmental conversation.

As we create our bright shining future, we will need all hands on deck. We’ll need to re-define leadership so that we recognize our leaders wherever they are, so that someone like Mark, who loves food, and thinks deeply about food and food policy, and has more to contribute to the food discussion than any elected leader I can think of, will have a permanent seat at any table where policy decisions about food are being made.

What do you think of Bittman’s ideas?



Mark Bittman How To Cook Everything

How To Cook Everything
Bittman’s award-winning How To Cook Everything is my go-to book whenever I forget what temperature to cook the chicken at, or when I want to learn to cook one of the many dishes that form the foundation of great home cooking. Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian and How To Cook Everything The Basics round out the repertoire.


Spain On The RoadSpain…On The Road Again
A few years ago, Bittman hit the road with chef Mario Batali, American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and Spanish Actress Claudia Bassols for a culinary road trip of Spain that culminated in a TV series, a book (authored by Batali and Paltrow), a DVD, and the appearance of single episodes of the TV series appearing for purchase on iTunes. You can purchases these Spain…On The Road Again goodies here.


PHOTOGRAPHY AND IMAGES (top, left to right) via and The New York Times

PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.

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