Have you ever taken the time to read a can of chili or a bag of potato chips? When you’re hungry, you probably don’t bother to study the carefully worded text on the packaging, but sometime when you’re full (and bored), have a look.
There’s not much of a plot on a box of cereal, and the heat-’n'-serve meals are weak on character development, but they all have a lot to say about themselves, and not just their weight and sodium content, either. A jar of Planters peanuts, for instance, struggles with guilt feelings as it admits to being “manufactured on equipment that processes sunflower seed, tree nuts,” and that peanuts are a choking hazard.
On the other hand, some packages are virtual cheerleaders, praising you for choosing to consume the product they contain because it is “heart healthy”, or because it has trace amounts of actual fruit mixed in with all the chemical compounds.
While reading the text on your processed foods, don’t forget to look at the artwork, which usually comes with the caption “Serving Suggestion”. A box of Bisquick has a photo of pancakes with butter, syrup, and fruit; that’s the serving suggestion, and I think it’s a good one. I’d rather have Bisquick served that way than straight out of the box in its powder form.
Some bacon might be a nice accompaniment to those pancakes, and I found that Oscar Mayer shows cooked bacon strips on the front of the package, with the subtle comment that this is merely a serving suggestion. Again, that hint has real merit, I think, since raw bacon strips don’t appeal to me.
Sometimes a serving suggestion is as minimal as an added sprig of parsley, but the rule seems to be that if you’re showing anything on the package that isn’t in the package, the picture has to be labeled “serving suggestion”. As the United Kingdom’s Food Labelling [sic] Regulations 1996 define it, a serving suggestion is “a picture of the food shown with other foods with which it might be consumed.” That’s reasonable, but suspicious minds — like yours and mine — wonder if the manufacturer is required by law to carry that statement on the package.
It turns out that the U.S. has no such law. I couldn’t find one, anyway, and I slogged through a lot of government regulations to try to find a “serving suggestion” requirement. Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (Food and Drug Administration) sets labeling standards concerning fat content and processing methods and, oh — using diced onions in onion rings and stuff like that. But there was nothing specifically requiring the use of the words “serving suggestion” on the PDP. That stands for Principal Display Panel — what we consumers might call “the front of the package”.
Now, section 403 (a)(1) of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act says that a food product is misbranded “if its labeling is false or misleading in any particular.” Apparently that means that you, the consumer, might be victimized if you bought a packet of Lipton Cup-A-Soup and discovered that there wasn’t a cup inside.
It seems that using the term “serving suggestion” keeps the companies from getting served with lawsuits. It’s a way for them to tell us “What’s in the package doesn’t necessarily look like this pretty picture, but at least it’s edible! (See back of package for warnings.)”