Federal regulations already dictate the shape, color, size, and content of the nutrition panel on food labels. Not good enough, apparently. The diet squad at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is preparing to track eye movements to uncover the “subconscious and conscious factors” behind our grocery choices. They plan to use the findings to “help” us improve our eating habits (i.e., more regulation).
There is no shortage of nutrition information on food labels. The packaging for most every product specifies the proper serving size (absolute and percentage of daily value), calories, total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate (dietary fiber and sugars), protein, vitamins, and nutrients. The FDA’s regulatory “guidance” on current labeling requirements runs 122 pages (and is available in Hindi, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish).
But Frito-Lay and Oscar Mayer are still in business, which to the folks at the FDA must mean that either the current rules are insufficient or Americans just don’t understand what’s good for them. By plumbing our subconscious, the agency expects to discover new ways to regulate labeling that would somehow compel us to abide by government’s caloric prescriptions. They fail to consider that we don’t need (or want) such assistance.
Using a combination of camera and infrared light, FDA researchers plan to track which label elements capture the attention of research subjects, the order and path in which each element is observed, and the time each is viewed. As outlined in a recent Federal Register notice, the study calls for 60 participants—a sample size far too small to yield results of any utility whatsoever.
There’s nothing particularly dangerous or demonic about eye-tracking technology per se; it is increasingly used in product design and market research. But the FDA offers no justification for probing pupils beyond benevolent intent—the handy excuse of every regulator itching to expand his or her authority. And there are already loads of research about the effects of nutrition labeling on consumer behavior.
Those advocating the eyeball scrutiny are undoubtedly earnest about their mission. Alas, technocrats can’t help but believe that ever more calibrated social controls will produce perfect citizens—notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. But they will keep trying as long as their coffers are filled with taxpayer dollars and our elected representatives confer unconstrained powers upon them.