A recent article by Brandon McFadden in The Conversation dove into the food labeling craze, explaining how labels can often mislead.
For example, you can now buy “premium” water that’s not only free of GMOs and gluten but certified kosher and organic. Never mind that not a single drop of water anywhere contains either property or is altered in any way by those designations.
While some labels provide useful information that is not readily detectable by consumers, others contain misleading claims that exploit a knowledge gap with consumers and take advantage of their willingness to pay a premium for so-called process labels. For example, details on a product’s country of origin are helpful; labeling a bottle of water “gluten free” and “non-GMO” much less so.
In my experience as a food economist, such “fake transparency” does nothing to inform consumers about the nature of their foods. Moreover, it can actually decrease well-being when accompanied by a higher price tag.
As McFadden notes, rules around labeling vary wildly.
Some labels, such as “organic,” follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as “natural.” Eggs might come from chickens that are “cage-free” (which isn’t regulated) or “free range” (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are “grass-fed” (no standard) or “hormone-free” (requires verification).
These labels are largely the result of the consumer desire to know more about the way food is produced – and the willingness to pay more for the claims, spurious or not.
Unfortunately, as consumer interest in greater knowledge about their food has increased, many companies have taken advantage.
Some companies, however, use food labels to exploit this knowledge gap by preying on consumer concerns about a certain ingredient or process in order to collect a premium or increase market share. One of the ways they do this is by providing fake transparency through so-called absence labels (like “does not contain”), which are increasingly found on products that could not possibly have the ingredient in the first place.
While the water example I mentioned earlier is the most clear-cut illustration of this, others only require a bit more knowledge to see that they don’t serve a purpose. Since federal regulation requires that hormones not be used in pork or poultry, advertising a chicken breast as “hormone-free” doesn’t make sense – yet doing so allows a company to charge more or help its products stand out from the less-labeled competition.
So – know that, like the author’s example of “GMO-free” water, foods are often labeled as such – even when there is no GM equivalent. In fact, there are only 11 commercially available GM crops in the United States: soybeans, corn (field and sweet), canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples and potatoes.
GMOs have consistently been proven safe by scientific research, so “GMO-free” labels are typically meant to mislead and create fear around these foods. So know the facts, and as the article notes, don’t buy into fake transparency!