I was making my coffee the other morning (I’m an apostate who drinks instant coffee at home, for various practical reasons, most of which have to do with me being a super-clutz who’s broken more coffee carafes than the coffee carafe industry can possibly keep up with) when I noticed something odd about the coffee label.
Let’s back up for a moment to detail my reasons for drinking coffee. Reasons which, I think, probably apply to the vast majority of coffee-drinkers.
- I like the taste.
- I like the caffeine buzz.
- I like the ritual, and the emotional comfort of it.
You notice what’s not on that list?
That’s why it tripped me out to notice the big label on the can.
I mean, it’s been there a while. Sure, I’ve noticed it before. But I never really noticed it until that morning.
Inspired — and in a half-awake undercaffeinated haze — I decided to grab the nearest thing and look for a similar label.
Since we ran out of milk the day before, and since we drink Canadian-style wussy coffee (meaning with milk or cream, plus sugar — black coffee is an abomination unto the Lord and shall not defile this house), the nearest thing was a delicious powdered non-dairy creamer. Which we keep as back-up to avoid a potential coffee crisis.
(Priorities, people. We have them.)
So I grabbed it, and guess what?
CHOLESTEROL FREE, YO.
Which, you know, I suppose is useful information if you have significant dyslipidemia (that is, high blood cholesterol levels) and are sensitive to cholesterol in food (which not all people are, especially not at levels as low as a spoonful of cream or milk in your coffee. Saturated fat is now pretty well-known as the culprit in raising people’s blood cholesterol, and it’s been established that the dietary cholesterol panic of the 80s turned out to be misguided.)
The lactose-free label, well…I take no issue with that. It’s something useful to have, front and centre, if you want to expand your market to include the many folks wishing not to endure a torrent of gaseous mishaps in the course of enjoying their morning brew.
So, quick analysis, what’s up with these largely irrelevant labels on things? Especially things that I wouldn’t really think of as “food” in the first place, and which don’t contribute significantly to your total intake? (I mean, coffee is largely non-nutritive, and a teaspoon or two of fake coffee creamer is pretty damn close to non-nutritive. And, in any case, most people don’t drink more than one or a few cups of the stuff in a day.)
My hypothesis is that, rather than the default cultural attitude toward food and food-like substances being “it’s fine to eat this, and it probably has things in it which are good for me, or, at least, are not actively harmful” we’ve reached a point, collectively, where our default attitude tends to be, “Should I eat/drink/ingest this? Is it poisonous? Am I allowed?”
Coffee (and caffeine itself) has become a particularly loaded substance in certain dietary circles. When I was dieting, I also avoided drinking coffee…for no specific reason I’m aware of. Because it was The Thing to Do. Because coffee was vaguely regarded as A Bad, Unnatural Thing.
Part of the package of virtuous self-denial included giving up coffee (and diet soda, and and and…whatever not-particularly-harmful or not-particularly-nutrition-impacting thing someone enjoyed just for the sake of it. Because food had become a tool, and only a tool. Everything consumed required instrumental justification.)
That’s a whole lot of anxiety to carry around. Enough that it’s going to make you second-guess your habitual purchases. Which is not very good for the folks who sell instant coffee.
So, what can the food-industrial-complex use to smuggle its products through the barbed-wire fence of ambivalence erected by its twin sister, the diet-industrial-complex?
A label that, despite seeming to give you straightforward, useful information about antioxidants and cholesterol, is actually telling you, “Just this once, you’re exempted from guilt. You are granted permission to drink this coffee for Specific, Nutritional Benefits — not for the evil caffeine buzz, not for the comforting emotional associations. Not just because it’s enjoyable. Because it has antioxidants, and it’s cholesterol free.”
In short, it’s a Get Out of Jail Free card. From a jail I believe they helped build.
To you, the guilt-ridden consumer, from the food industry with love.
ETA: Awesome reader Bookwyrm made an equally awesome Get Out of Jail Free card. Read it and weep.