Learning The LabelsFood labeling can be cause for confusion; sway purchasing habits of consumers
When you shop for food, there can be some confusion when reading the labels. There may be ingredients you can’t pronounce. There may be terms that are unclear. There may be foods that aren’t that good for you that are touted as so.
“Creative food labeling can easily ascribe a certain value to a product whether or not it is valid. A ‘health halo’ is a product with the illusion that it is good for you without any evidence that the product is healthier or better for you than an alternative,” said Rachel Kleinman, MS, RDN, LDN with Ingalls Hospital/UChicago Medicine. A natural, non-GMO, organic cookie is still a cookie at the end of the day.”
Some terms seem straightforward, but that’s not always the case. While some are strictly regulated, others are not and unless you really dig in and do your homework, there’s no way for a consumer to know how that product qualified to earn specific label.
“Organic” is one term that is strictly regulated by the USDA. “In order to obtain the organic seal, the product must contain at least 95% organic content and use organic farming methods,” said Kleinman. By contrast, the term “all-natural” is loosely regulated and may not match the definition that a consumer expects. In this case it can be used by marketing companies to put a more wholesome spin on a product to boost its sales.
Kleinman noted that while consumers are free to choose what products they buy, such labeling plays upon food fears and can be misleading. “This confusion has led to an overall decrease in fresh produce consumption despite conventional produce being safe and inexpensive,” she said.
While a word like “all-natural” can be used to elevate a product and make a consumer believe it is a healthier product that it really is, the term “GMO” can be used by marketers to demonize foods and make them seem dangerous and deadly when that isn't the case.
“The non-GMO project label implies there is something wrong with GMOs that we need to be afraid of. Fortunately, GMOs go through decades of research to prove safety for human consumption before they can be sold on the free market. Even then, their presence in our food supply is limited right now," Kleinman explained. “In fact, there are only 10 GMOs on the market. Because of this, it is easy for pretty much any food company to slap a non-GMO project label on their items. There is no GMO wheat on the market, so there is no reason the whole grain bread you’ve purchased needs to identify itself as non-GMO outside of the health halo the label provides.”
“Hormone-free” is another unnecessary tag that can be used to convince consumers that a product is superior to another. “It is illegal to inject hormones into chicken and turkey so any brand of chicken can be labeled as 'hormone free’. This provides no added benefit to the consumer and only leads to fear surrounding other brands of meat,” said Kleinman.
Another term that can be misleading is “farm raised,” which can be used by any chicken company as all chickens are raised on some type of farm, noted Kleinman.
“There is also no precise government definition of ‘free range’ and companies can use this on a case-by-case basis. The USDA permits use of this label for any chickens that had access to the outdoors for some part of the day, whether the chickens actually choose to go outside or not,” said Kleinman “This label provides a nice wholesome image of happy chickens roaming around outside when it is a simple standard that many companies can choose to use.”
While the examples above may show how labeling terms can go awry, there is certain verbiage you should look for and can be confident in believing. The terms “high in,” “excellent source of”, “fortified”, or “enriched” are regulated and give a true sense of its contents. You might also look for labels like “low sodium” if your diet requires that you limit salt intake.
Another thing to keep in mind, according to Kleinman, is the false notion that if you can’t pronounce something in the ingredient panel, you shouldn’t be eating it. Take cyanocobalamin for example. It may sound scary, but it’s just another name for Vitamin B12.
Resources to help you boost your food labeling knowledge:
Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, author, blogger and photographer living in Chicago’s south suburbs with her husband and five sons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications and she is the author of seven books. A passionate foodie, Carrie thoroughly enjoys traveling and visiting new restaurants and craft breweries, attending food festivals and trying out new recipes and kitchen gadgets. She writes about her food experiences at ChicagoFoodieSisters.com.