The Dark Arts Of Food Labelling

by Rudy Sanchez on 06/05/2019 | 4 Minute Read

There’s a sort of alchemy when it comes to adding labels and health claims to the front of food packaging.

While typically well-intentioned, the regulatory space surrounding these call-outs and use of certified labels is ambitious enough that it allows brands to use health claims in ways that are technically and legally true, but typically make a product seem of a higher quality or healthy while not necessarily being so.

According to a recent survey, over half of Americans feel food labels are misleading, and 93% feel that those same companies hide sugar in their products by using different words on the packaging. It’s not difficult to see why. Many commonly used descriptions or labels are unregulated or barely regulated to the point of having little meaning, while others get tightly controlled.

Different regulators are also in charge of various labels. When it comes to meat, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) control the labels, while other times it falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition to legally-defined labels, some organizations offer their own individualized certifications for attributes such as “fair trade" and “sustainability” and “cruelty-free.” Labels and claims on the front of food packaging have turned into the nutritional equivalent of a modern car’s dashboard, and they wind up so confusing they're often ignored.

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Terms like “natural,” and “all natural” are by the USDA, but not the FDA, at least not yet. The FDA last year signaled an intent to address the term’s use and said it was close to creating a set of guidelines for the label. It’s been about a year, and the FDA has yet to act, and the departure of commissioner Gottlieb has probably not helped the issue move forward. Until the FDA issues guidelines, “natural” can mean whatever a brand thinks it is, resulting in more confusion in the marketplace.

For meat and poultry, the USDA says natural means no artificial ingredients or added colors, as well as not being “fundamentally” altered during processing. This means that even a canned Spam meat spread is technically “natural.”

“Organic” is a much more strict label to use than “natural,” yet many believe that current standards don’t live up to the principles that precipitated that certification, including the use of hydroponics and keeping livestock penned in when they are supposed to be openly grazing.

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The organic movement began not only as a rejection of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides but as a return to sustainable soil management and environmental stewardship. Born from the necessity of feeding ravaged WWII nations alongside advances in chemicals, there was a newfound boom in commodity agriculture, and conservationists like Albert Howard, J.I. Rodale and Rachel Carson made significant strides in organic farming.

The counterculture movement and growing concern over the damage to the environment only accelerated the interest in organic foods, which is now valued at over $50 billion in the US alone.

The USDA was set to clarify rules regarding livestock’s access to outdoor areas as part of its practices surrounding organic livestock but delayed implementation until President Trump was sworn in, then later, in March 2018, withdrew the rules entirely.

Confused yet? Another way brands use labels that perplexes consumers and creates distrust is a technique known as “health-washing,” using disingenuous labeling to give the impression a product is healthy or high quality. For example, dietary cholesterol only comes from animals, so one has to ask why a product made entirely of plant-based ingredients would need to claim to be “cholesterol-free.”

Another way brands can make their food seem healthier is by calling out a particular attribute. The FDA does regulate what words can be used, “high,” “rich in,” and “excellent source of” must contain 20% or more of the daily value recommended per serving size. “Good source of” and “contains” must have at least 10% of daily recommended value, and finally phrases like “enriched,” “added,” “fortified,” “extra,” “plus,” and “more” must have at least 10% of daily recommended value but can only be used for vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and potassium. This can lead to the perception that a product might be healthy because it is high in or contains a particular nutrient, disregarding the negative health attributes of a product.

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With the resignation of Commissioner Gottlieb and the current administration’s penchant for rolling back or eliminating Obama-era created initiatives, it is uncertain that an increase in label transparency via government regulation is going to happen soon.

According to a recent Nielsen study, 67% of consumers want to know what goes into their food. With such a strong desire for food label honesty, why do brands continue to practice the dark art of label misdirection?  

As anyone that’s visited a supermarket lately knows the shelves are crowded, and competition is fierce for a market projected to reach over $720 billion in the US by 2020. Of course, another reason is that it’s still surprisingly effective. One study found that just a third of consumers aged 25-36 read a package’s label prior to their first time purchasing a product.

No brand wants to be seen as a snake oil salesman, but if you can stand on your soapbox and talk up your magical elixirs and tonics, labeling them with whatever terminology you can get away with, well, why stop?

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