Food Labelling Nonsense: How Intimate is Your Lunchbox?

I may be lunchbox friendly but am I label friendly?

I may be lunchbox friendly but am I label friendly?

Have you ever wondered what happens inside your lunchbox after you shut the lid? I know I have lost endless hours of sleep and sanity thinking about this very thing and more importantly as a mother thinking about how I may be affecting my kids by what I pack in their lunchbox.

OK, given the ages of my kids I don’t really pack their lunch boxes anymore, but I did for years and found it an eternal struggle. Struggle in the sense of keeping the lunchbox interesting so that its contents actually ended up in the kids’ stomachs rather than as a science experiment two weeks after it was first packed. We parents have all witnessed that experiment at one time or another and have acknowledged how creative Mother Nature really is by coordinating so many pretty colours of mould. And like me, I am sure you were often in fact packing lunches for other people’s kids because lunchtime was just a big swap meet. To ensure your kid maintained playground status it was important to always pack swap worthy, interesting items. Your kids may not have appreciated the nutritious, smelly salami sandwiches that you lovingly packed every day, but little Johnny whose parents were vegetarians certainly enjoyed your daily efforts.

I’m glad those days and the lunchbox pressure is now over.

Roll the film forward to lunch time today and I was lucky enough to have been offered a  muesli bar by a friend. It hit the spot right in the middle of four hours of uni classes. As I was breaking open the packaging about to savour the delicious flavours of strawberry, yoghurt and oats, I noticed that the labelling on the packaging proclaimed this muesli bar to be LUNCHBOX FRIENDLY.

Since when did muesli bars become aggressive and mean? Mind you, I have had my suspicions. Every time I used to put a muesli bar into my son’s lunch box the apple core would come back bruised and the mandarin beaten to a pulp. Coincidence? I think not.

If I was putting together a lunch box today for my sons I would have to consider not only the nutritional and freshness retention value of the food together with the ever changing palettes of my offspring, but also whether the food played nice with other food when the lid came down. And if not for the food label how would I ever know if a particular food was friendly and compatible? I mean trying to catch unfriendly food in the act is a bit like trying to peek inside the fridge door without making the light come on.

Needless to say the expression LUNCHBOX FRIENDLY came with a little ^ after it, meaning there was more to this friendship story. After chasing the little thingy around the bottom of the packet and squinting so hard that I almost burst a blood vessel, I found this explanation:

We care about you and your family and are committed to helping Australian families make easier choices for the lunchbox. That’s why we now make all of our muesli bars with a no added nut recipe* ensuring the range is now lunchbox friendly.

*This product has been made on equipment that does not use or handle peanut or tree nuts. Whilst we have taken these nuts out of our recipes we cannot guarantee that the other ingredients in this product have not come into contact with tree nuts or peanuts.

So having chased a ^ and * around the packet, I found that this friendly muesli bar didn’t hang out with nuts, but some of its ingredients could have. It certainly is a sign of our times that 40 or so words have to be used on packaging to avoid potential litigation or bad press around nut allergies.

I sympathise with any parent who has a child with a food allergy. I am not sure though whether introducing the label of LUNCHBOX FRIENDLY is the clearest way to warn consumers. That expression can mean a host of things to a host of people, if it means anything at all. My first reaction was that lunchbox friendly meant less fat, less sugar.

My second reaction was lunch boxes must have gotten a whole lot tougher than when I was a kid. My third reaction was to check the pantry for other nonsense labels.

The message seems to have gotten lost in the attempt at clever marketing. How many people would pause long enough to chase the symbols around the packet? It seems preferable to simply state NOT MADE WITH NUTS given the caveat about other ingredients possibly having socialised with nuts.

Why use 4 words when you can use 40?

Have you ever come across nonsensical  labelling of foods?  Do you read the food labels on packets?

34 thoughts on “Food Labelling Nonsense: How Intimate is Your Lunchbox?

  1. This was so much fun to read while I sat here not packing my teenage son’s lunch today. Hard to do it because “ever changing palettes of my offspring” is universal I think. I read that line, looked at my offspring and smiled. Do your guys change their palettes from lunchtime to dinnertime like my guy does?

    Loved the way you grabbed the idea of a muesli bar beating up an apple. The visuals in your piece were awesome, I was in the lunchbox with the wrappers and leaking freezer pack.

    And yes, I read labels on everything. The big challenge is identifying “the ever changing evil ingredient” to avoid. In fact, we do mostly home made, whole foods and natural foods stuff as much as possible because evil ingredients seem to beat up apples and pancreases and livers, until they are shown to be beneficial and new evil ingredients take hold. Simplest to avoid ingredients altogether :)

    Great post!

    • Thanks for the wonderful feedback. Indeed, my boys’ palettes change by the minute which makes inventory control really difficult. Currently the big one is back on his cereal phase which meant that our milk supplies ran out mid-week. Clearly, “lunchboxing” is a universal parental struggle :). So glad we found each other’ sites in the blogosphere.

  2. Yes, I read labels. I’m one of those unfortunate mothers of a nut allergic child, who would be sent straight to the ER if he ate one, so would read the wording on this “lunchbox friendly” bar and say, no way would I allow my kid to eat it because it could have been hanging around near nuts. When I read “lunchbox friendly” I would have thought it meant that it fit nicely in a lunchbox–that’s about all it says to me. I also read labels to make sure there are no weird/fake ingredients, and that there isn’t added sugar, my child definitely does not need anymore reason to lose focus throughout the day…needless to say, his lunch box tends to go towards the homemade. I agree though, detest some of the claims on food packaging that are just misleading and false…and sadly there are many that read it, and don’t go beyond that, innocently assuming the label is meaningful.

    • This label has to be amongst the most meaningless I have seen. I can see how it could imply that the shape makes it an easy lunch box fit. You’re right about fake ingredients. sometimes the flavourings and preservatives out number anything that could be called edible. Any ingredient that has a number for a name is to be avoided.

  3. Judy, since I pack my daughter’s lunch, lunch box friendly to me means – it is easy to pull and stuff in, it is in the ball park of being of healthy, it does not take up too much room, and it is not messy. Yesterday, I stuffed too many blackberries in and the juice leaked out of the container all over the place. So, the messy rule was violated. I think I will stick to blueberries as they are smaller. BTG

  4. “My first reaction was that lunchbox friendly meant less fat, less sugar.”—That was mine, too. I agree–seems an illogical way to discuss allergies.

    Packing kids’ lunches is difficult. You try to limit processed foods, but on the other hand, you’re often limited by what will stay fresh. I read something recently that even an ice pack in the lunch box cannot protect products like yogurt for the few hours until lunch. In terms of sandwiches, it pretty much makes peanut butter and jelly the only possibility. Mayo won’t hold up. Next year my youngest will be in high school, and then it’s bye-bye lunch boxes. Even though he’s responsible for making his own lunch now, I still can’t wait.

    • It really is a right of passage when you stop making the lunch box, for both parent and child :). Over hear generally we are prohibited from packing peanut containing foods, including peanut butter in lunch boxes because of the allergy problem. Certainly in primary school (kids up to the age of 11). This made lunch boxes rather difficult for this peanut butter loving family, but we got by. The freshness thing is indeed difficult, especially in the warmer months.

      • Yes, my son couldn’t pack peanut butter in elementary, but in middle school he’s been able to. I guess since their classes are small, and no one has allergies, they’re able to pack it. Thank goodness.

  5. Don’t even get me started on the whole food and marketing label fiasco!! Am trying to keep blood pressure low today; will rant another day:-)

    Love your satirical post; good laughs and NO NUTS for sure!

  6. Look what you wouldn’t have picked up on if you hadn’t followed the ^. We must all thank you for pointing this out. I don’t read labels because I don’t buy anything ready-made or processed. I can’t remember when I stopped (I did but long ago). Is it because I enjoy my time in the kitchen or do I think homemade tastes better. I haven’t made lunches in years and I remember my daughter complaining I didn’t give her any snacks (junk food). Thanks goodness she liked her carrots and celery with a sandwich and fruit.
    When I see what my grand kids put into their lunch, I shudder. About the only thing that doesn’t make it into the lunch bag are nuts because school is nut-free. The rest is lunchables and other processed c.r.a.p. *shivers*

    • Your story about not buying ready made or processed is a common one. I think if you have the time and inclination to make homemade food then that is by far a better choice, for health and for choice. I must admit I cringe at the ready made lunch box selections at the supermarket. Highly processed and unbalanced. I have never bought any of those. It gets incredibly difficult hen your child goes through everything’s “yuk” phase. Thankfully we are getting through all of that now.

  7. I read this with a big smile, I love your thoughts here! I find that sometimes when I read food labels, I wonder if it’s still “food”. But as you mention labels, my favourite has to be this: baby clothes with a label that says “keep away from fire”. Sorry for leaving the food theme, but I think they have something in common!

    • Yes, that baby label is rather silly. Similar to the label on a stove which says “caution, hot”. Anyone who can read, would certainly know not to touch a stove when the burners were going. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. Yes I read labels – I have to for the sake of my two food sensitive children. I can promise that when I have to go chasing after symbols for inane and ridiculous non-info like this, the product will NOT make it into my cart, let alone my kids lunch.

  9. Ok yep I, I the mother who made the soggy salad sandwiches only to be returned. I who unceremoniously squashed grapes into the lunch box. I who yes, gave them chips for snack time, or weird pickles as ..well I had to eat them when I was their age. I, who gave up on many an occasion to give them tuck shop money. I stand guilty as charged. This had me in stitches. Thanks Jude :-) x

  10. I have faith in European Union’s legendary bureaucracy taking care of this and creating enormously useful standards for food labelling :-)! I didn’t pay much attention but the descriptions and icons and tables and whatnot got longer and longer.

    • Longer here too, and more confusing. Take the standard of recommended daily allowance. Great if you can get all your calcium needs from one food, but not if it is ladled with fat and sugar.

  11. Your post made me laugh :)
    I had thought the art of lunchbox packing was just navigating the fine line between healthy and tasty (no kids yet so no experience in the art of packing a lunch for someone else) – but there are social pressures to consider too! This is serious business! ;-)

  12. Oh lunch box science experiments. I once gave my mother a six month old nectarine in my coat pocket which, by that time, could have functioned as a belated cure for polio, I’m sure.

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