The Unlabeled Life

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I (JM) think that there is an exception- the life in China of unexamined nutrition labels is entirely liberating. Every food product in the States had nutrition information that I would at least glance over before eating, but since arrival here, I haven’t once been able to decipher the Chinese coding on food items that must say things like ‘mono-unsaturated,’ ‘thiamine,’ or quite possibly ‘melamine'(!). I have to say that life without the pressure of doing a quick mathematical calculation before every bite (‘Is that more than one-third’s worth of fat?’) has brought a new level of peace that I imagine can be likened to some kind of Nirvana, aloof from the care of this worldly weight of calories.

In fact, many things here don’t even have food labels. If I asked the Chow-mein cook how much oil was in my fried noodles, he would probably stare at me blankly, or else say ‘As much as I put in.’ Sometimes there’s a lot, more often a whole lot. Oil is used liberally on every dish except for steamed rice (but thankfully there’s the fried version). All of the oil, sugar, MSG and saturated fat notwithstanding, the average citizen here is not less healthy than Americans, but appears to be the opposite. Is it the mobile lifestyle, the substitution of tea for coffee, the lack of significant dairy consumption, or just genetics? It’s hard to say. People are in fact rather large consumers of food, but still avoid avoid becoming.. rather ‘large’ consumers of food.

So, no real need for food labels. It’s a lucky quirk of the system that no matter what you are eating, your chances of gaining weight are significantly reduced. Vitamins? Just eat your veggies. Protein? Tofu can be made into almost anything. Sodium? Better worry more about the effects of smoking and second-hand smoke before heart attacks.

It’s been nine months of the nutrition-label-free life, and I have to say that now having arrived, I don’t plan on going back!


3 Responses to “The Unlabeled Life”

  1. 1 mjfalk November 8, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Here in the US it’s been a long and hard-fought battle to force food packagers to include the nutritional value of the contents on our purchased food. It is being done now because it’s the law, not because we’ve had this sudden surge of heightened moral conscience in the food industry, but because of the law. When you have to go back two generations in US history to find comparable incidents of current foreign examples of governmental neglect of the common good of its citizens—I think we measure up fairly well against the competition. False assumptions abound when we generalize based on our everyday observations of those around us—especially when dealing with language abd custom differences. Granted, obesity is an American epidemic—-due to bad habits, I would guess. Starvation in other areas of our planet is a sad commentary on our preoccupation with the self. When Michael and Lucifer stood at opposite ends of the battle field—the angels went with Michael, and those who went with Lucifer are called devils. The undecided are called human beings. So wherever we are in the world, we are all in this together. Dad and I each lost 20 pounds while we were in China—-within a year back home we had it all back. But we are both working on that problem together now. And we read labels a lot!

  2. 2 Becca Lloyd November 8, 2008 at 11:33 pm


    Great to catch up with you, blogstyle! Glad you are doing well. This post has really inspired me to avoid the nutritional information–after all, it is a little obsessive to analyze how much vitamin a my frosted mini-wheats have. Do we really have to know?!

  3. 3 Chris Burgwald November 9, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    This post really harmonizes with two books I’ve read in the last few months: first is the No-S Diet, which isn’t a gimmicky diet at all, but rather a common-sense approach to eating (i.e. “dieting” in the less-typical sense): avoid snacks, seconds and sweets except on S days (Saturday, Sunday, Special days). Along the way the author (a software engineer, actually) makes some great points about American eating habits, some of which dovetail nicely with your post, JM. There’s a website (google “no s diet”) that has most of the content of the book.

    Second is “In Defense of Food”, an excellent book about the changes in food production and eating in the last 50-70 years. This author notes that while there are all sorts of “food-like products” available in supermarkets, there’s no as much actual food. Among many terrific points, he notes that if a product makes health claims on its label, it’s probably not “real” food, and that you’re better off sticking with real food, which typically doesn’t make health claims. His eater’s manifesto is: “Eat [real] food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Again, common-sensical, but we seem to lack some of that when it comes to eating!

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