I’m tired of the government interfering in my life. I want less government. I want smaller government.

Oh yeah, and I’d like someone to oversee the use of words like “natural” on processed food labels and limit the amount of sodium in them.

That’s the schizophrenic message being sent by the average American, new food-industry polls reveal. Americans’ faith in Congress’ ability to solve the country’s problems is at an all-time low: about 20 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Meanwhile, a poll released last month by FoodMinds, a marketing analysis firm based in Chicago, reported that most Americans still believe the government has an important role in food safety and protecting consumer interests: 72 percent said they had a “fair amount” of trust in the USDA, the FDA, and the Federal Trade Commission. (The FDA, however, has seen a serious decline in public esteem, according to Pew.) Seventy-seven percent said they want government warnings about less healthy food choices, and 86 percent said they wanted front-of-pack labeling about calories and other information.

“Within this environment, consumers are looking for real assistance in helping them make better choices at the grocery store,” FoodMinds said in its summary of the study. “The majority of Americans believe it is their personal responsibility to make the right choices. However, grocery shoppers also seem to indicate that if the industry isn’t able or willing, then they are happy to have the government step in and help.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The increasing volume of public calls for reform at almost every level of food production, “from farm to fork” as many agtivist groups like to say, has ushered in an era of what FoodMinds is calling “Food Temperance.” Although this may conjure up images of Carrie Nation hacking away at the service counter of a McDonalds, other evidence in the same study demonstrates that, while Americans are eager to ensure their food is safe, they frequently lack the vocabulary or knowledge to influence decisions about food.

Restaurant trade journal QSR recently published an interesting piece about growing consumer interest in both locally grown and organic foods. Many restaurants, the story said, have been working hard to meet those demands and, in several cases, new restaurants have sprung up that cater exclusively to those demands. The problem? Customers don’t always know the difference and frequently assume one label means the product is both organic and locally grown.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Now that ‘locally grown’ is getting so much attention and people are learning about it, I often hear, ‘Oh I thought locally grown was organic,'” Matt Saline, president and CEO of Mambo Sprouts, a marketing firm focusing on natural and organic products, told QSR. “There’s a huge perception problem there.”

What we have here, of course, is a failure to communicate, but it’s a failure that plays nicely into the hands of those who would take advantage of the situation. With voters lashing out at people in power rather than at specific policies or individuals, we face once again the prospect of a Republican resurgence in Washington. More to the point, we face the possibility that many of those with strong ties to Big Ag and Industrial Food will slow down or put the kibosh on efforts at food reform. 

Remember Kellogg’s effort last year to label Rice Krispies cereal as an immunity booster? A single serving of 35 grams — or one cup — of that immunity-boosting breakfast food contains 14 grams of sugar. Kellogg, meanwhile, insisted its recent increases in vitamin content warranted the claims. While that effort was quickly quashed, thanks to San Francisco’s district attorney Dennis Herrera, there have been too many other similar incidents that indicate the corporate world won’t police itself.

Why should a person know that a product labeled as “natural” or “healthy” might not be either? Isn’t that what all these regulations are for?

Even when labeling clearly works in favor of the consumer, however, consumers don’t always understand the information they’re getting. Take, for example, the controversy over trans fats a few years back. Trans fats were implicated in heart disease because of their unfortunate penchant for raising bad cholesterol levels while simultaneously lowering good cholesterol. The industry news site NutraIngredients-usa.com reported that “where consumers do associate trans fats with a health risk, the concerns most typically cited are heart disease and weight gain, although the association remains ‘weak and murky.”‘

People have to filter an enormous amount of information every day, and much of it is seemingly contradictory — hell, much of it is contradictory. Keeping up with findings and changes in food safety, as well as nutrition, is a lot to ask of anyone, particularly when it goes against accepted wisdom or customs. Particularly, too, when corporations, sensing major losses, begin putting out misleading advertising to counteract the truth.

Until voters realize that the contradictory message they’re sending Washington isn’t going to result in information that will help them make better decisions regarding their health, we can expect to see more campaigns like the Corn Refiners Association’s one for high fructose corn syrup, “You’re in for a sweet surprise.” There’s plenty of money waiting to be spent, to buy more ads, to support more candidates who will vote for Big Food’s business interests at the expense of public health.