The Psychology (and Politics) of Food Labels

NonGMOSeal_logo Yesterday, April 23, 2014, the Vermont legislature passed the nation’s first “no strings attached” GMO labeling bill. The “no strings attached” stipulation means passage is not dependent on whether other states pass similar bills; Vermont will go it alone. The legislation would take effect on July 1, 2016.  It’s been a long journey, but the bill is now one step away from passage. If Governor Shumlin signs the bill — and all indications are that he will — it will be a first in the nation.

This heralds an unprecedented chapter in food production in the U.S. The bill is a definitive statement that people have a right to know what is in their food. Ultimately, what it provides is choice:  from the cornucopia of products available, a distinction can now be drawn between food that has been genetically altered from food that has not been.

It has been said that intelligence is the ability to make distinctions. When it comes to interpreting food labels, however, the definition goes out the window. Frequently we find meanings so delicately shaded as to be obscure, meanings so “economically written,” they are misleading, and marketing so aggressive it retains only fractional portions of the truth, if any at all.  What’s a consumer to do?

A two-year study by the UK’s Food Standards Agency concluded consumers were being misled by “meaningless descriptions,” on food labels. And who could blame 75% of consumers for finding food labels confusing with terms like “grass-fed,” “local,” “natural,” “organic,” and dozens more competing for their attention and pocketbooks?

Here at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) we struggle with the same questions:  what is local?  Pasture-raised?  Heirloom?  Heritage?  What is audited and third-party certified and what is unverified?  What are legal definitions and what are conventions (“A convention,” quipped Thornton Wilder, “is an agreed-upon falsehood.”)?

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

“People have a basic right to clear and meaningful labels so that they know what they are really buying — this goes to the very heart of consumer choice,” said Suzi Leather, deputy chairman of the Food Standards Agency.  “Frankly, there is far too much meaningless drivel and sloppy over-romantic descriptions of food at the moment.”

There are multiple concerns the consumer’s point of view.  Is the food good for me?  Is it affordable?  Does it taste good?  Can I trust the label?  (To test your food label savvy, take the quiz at the end of this post.)

4colorsealJPGNow here’s the rub: even if you know or think you know the definitions, there is confusion between Standardized and Non-Standardized terms; some of them are USDA-approved, defined, and clear cut.  Others are simply conventions, suggestions, or general guidelines.  Some are verified or certified by recognized and respected third-parties, and some are self-declared terms that amount to promotional marketing terms without any substantiated claim.

Further, there are subdivisions within many of these terms.  Take the word “organic,” for example.  “100-percent Organic” are products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients and therefore qualify for a USDA Organic seal. “Organic” products require at least 95 percent of its ingredients to be organic and also qualify for a USDA Organic seal.  Finally, “Made with Organic Ingredients,” are food products in which at least 70 percent of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used, but “made with organic ingredients” may appear on its packaging.

Before the 1900s, federal authority was limited to food imports. Individual states controlled domestically produced and distributed food and drugs. The results were disastrous — snake-oil cure-alls, sulfuric acid in pickles, woodchips in bread, arsenic in vinegar.  Marketing claims for cures for cancer, baldness, and vitality went unregulated. The first consumer protection law was passed in 1906 as a result of growing urbanization, new and cheaper food and drugs, transportation advances, and the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, among other factors. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the manufacturing and interstate shipment of adulterated and misbranded foods and drugs.  It was backed by the Bureau of Chemistry of the US department of Agriculture (USDA), the predecessor of the FDA.

In 1938 The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act replaced the 1906 act. This is still the framework used today. It established “standards of identity.”  It required labeling of every processed and packaged food product to contain the name of the food, net weight, ingredients, and name and address of the manufacturer and distributor.

Since then outright frauds have decreased.  Numerous amendments to the 1938 Act dealt with modern food technology blurring the lines between unlawful adulteration and lawful use of additives.

Finally, we arrive at the core of the labelling dilemma. Do the words used clarify or muddy the consumer’s decision-making process?  Today’s criteria is frighteningly reminiscent of Orwellian doublespeak, using terms like “Significant Scientific Agreement,” “The weight of scientific evidence,” “Substantial but inconclusive evidence,” and “Evidence that is limited but inconclusive.” These terms have no agreed upon definition. They further complicate one’s understanding by their vagueness and ambiguity.

Call for Action

A massive overhaul of food labelling standards is necessary. Terms, phrases, and even images on food labels should be overseen by responsible, third party (read:  without lobbyist or special interest intervention) organizations. Marketing claims should be truthful and not misleading. Restaurant menus should likewise conform to these standards.  Food labels should provide clearer information and specific, legal standards on nutrition claims. We need to establish and maintain trust that food labels are reliable sources of information about the food that nourishes and sustains us.

Darryl Benjamin is a core academic instructor at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont.  His forthcoming book, Real World Farm to Table, co-authored by Chef Lyndon Virkler and published by John Wiley & Sons, is due out in September 2014.

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Quiz: How Well Do You Know Food Label Terms?

The following outlines the gamut of food label terms we encounter in the supermarket. Take the following quiz to see how well you can match them up. (Answers at the end of this post.)

*Regulated. The terms or claims made on the label have been verified or audited regularly by a third party and determined to be true. This includes third-party certifications.

**Unregulated. The terms or claims are not independently verified or audited.

a. Antibiotic-free and hormone-free** 1. Continuous access to pasture; fed without grain or grain-based products.
b. Cage-free** 2. Livestock production must be pasture/grass/forage based.  Grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal.
c. Crate-free** 3. Food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives or other artificial substances.
d. Fair Trade* 4. Food and other agricultural products that are produced, processed, and sold within a certain region, whether defined by distance, state border, or regional boundaries.
e. Free-range** 5. Livestock raised outside either farrowing- or gestation-enclosed space, but not necessarily outdoors.
f. Gluten-free* 6. Market or higher prices paid to producers, satisfactory working conditions for workers, local sustainability.
g. Grass-fed* 7. Containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product).
h. Grass-finished** 8. Breeds of livestock that were bred over time so that they are well-adapted to local environmental conditions, can withstand local diseases, or survive in harsh environmental conditions.
i. Heirloom** 9. Animals were not fed any animal by-product, but may have had a diet that included grains.
j. Heritage** 10. Providing an environment in which animals can engage in natural behaviors; being raised with sufficient space where they are able to lie down; having shelter and gentle handling to limit stress; and the provision of ample fresh water and a healthy diet without antibiotic growth promoters or hormones.
k. Humanely-raised** 11. A broad term encapsulating a range of modifications to a food product from heating, freezing, mixing, and packaging, for example, to simply polishing an apple.
l. Locally-grown** 12. Certified standard limiting use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or other inputs.
m. Natural** 13. While the FDA has not established a definition, the term is generally defined as minimally processed, does not contain food additives, hormones, antibiotics, sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings that were not originally in the food.
n. Naturally-raised** 14. “Allowed access to the outside,” which might be interpreted as roaming in a pasture, or, alternately, a small window.
o. No Additives** 15. Also, ‘whole food.’  A broad term meaning untreated, refined, altered, preserved, or purified.
p. Organic* 16. Product has not been enhanced with the addition of natural or artificial additives.
q. Pasture-raised** 17. Raised unconfined, but almost always live inside barns or warehouses.
r. Pasture-fed** 18. Animals are fed grass and forage for an undefined period before slaughter, although they may have been given grains and other non-forage feeds for a large part of their lives.
s. Processed** 19. Unregulated term implying that animals were raised outdoors on pasture.
t. Unprocessed** 20. Livestock were raised entirely without growth promotants, antibiotics, and have never been fed animal by-products.
u. Vegetarian-fed** 21. Foods that do not contain gluten, a protein composite found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale.
v. Whole food** 22. Unique plant varieties which are genetically distinct from the commercial varieties popularized by industrial agriculture.

Quiz Answers:
a-13; b-17; c-5; d-6; e-14; f-21; g-2; h-18; i-22; j-8; k-10; l-4; m-7; n-20; o-16; p-12; q-19; r-1; s-11; t-15; u-9; v-3.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social.
  • Cynthia

    But, while I applaud Vermont on its forward-thinking bill, what good would it do? So, if Vermont requires GMO labeling, does that only apply to foods produced in Vermont?? That’s got to be a tiny percentage of the nation’s food supply ….

  • Tom Bivins

    Once again, Vermont leads the way for the nation around food issues! I am so proud to live in a state that recognizes my right to choose what I put into my body. What a thoughtful and well articulated essay on this issue.

  • Russ Kartee

    I have tried to find out what is in “natural” flavorings and colorings and the manufacturers would not disclose these “secrets”. How about when it says “beef”. What part? Hooves and tongues are “beef”. And what about red dye #40? What doesn’t it just say ground up beetles. They will find ways and loopholes to keep the gov’t, and us, out of THEIR business. Good job on the article Darryl. Glad to see the ball got rolling…

  • Neil Archibald

    The bigger issue here is that a State and populace has actually stood up to say “This is what we want…” and their local government has listened. Just like the stone in the water, the ripples get bigger as they move out, so shall this grown around the rest of the country. Maybe VT will require labeling for all food sold in VT, not just locally grown items. Maybe the companies will realize it is easier to produce products with standard labeling as opposed to creating a separate line for VT sale items. There are lots of ‘maybes’, but the good news is that it has started here. Great job on the article Darryl. Let the debate continue!

  • Erin Hockey

    I think that this is going to open a bigger, more frightening can of worms as it cracks down on the marketing business for these food companies. Billions of dollars every year are put towards advertising, and the people who work in these divisions know how to appeal to every consumer. By taking away their rights to throw around terms like “organic”, “grass-fed”, and “natural”, one might be able to react to the situation with the phrase “shots fired”. Vermont is not only taking on the case of becoming a healthier, well-informed, and knowledgeable state; but they are also taking on the deep pockets of the industry who will certainly put up a well-lawyered fight.

  • http://thisheartysoul.blogspot.com/ Kelly Dolan

    Darryl, a comprehensive list of all the terminology we find. No wonder we are confused. Notable is the lack of reference to labor in labeling apart from fair trade. I am looking forward to seeing this really come to the forefront of our discussion concerning food and hope that VT can once again lead the way. Thank you for this contribution!