Product labels: what they mean vs. what shoppers think they mean

Product labels: what they mean vs. what shoppers think they mean

If you thought product labels like “natural” and “organic” are getting watered down and potentially losing their marketing power, think again. But, interestingly, their value to shoppers is not necessarily based on their true meaning. Here are two cases in point.

Case #1
Choice Organic Teas—one of my go-to brands—recently became the first in the category to earn Non-GMO Product Verification for the company’s 29 teas. This means that each product “has been produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance, including testing of risk ingredients,” according to verifier, the Non-GMO Project. This effort at transparency is so meaningful and enticing to me, I think I’ll buy it, and perhaps pay a few more pennies for my tea bags. Isn’t non-GMO worth it?

But, wait just a second, the label begs the question: Are GMO teas grown at all? Turns out, not so much. “There’s no GMO tea out right now,” said Marina McLachlan, a spokeswoman for Choice Organic teas. “But there are herbs and spices and fruits and flavorings [in packaged teas] with GMO concerns. We’re hoping that the market response [to the non-GMO verification] is strong enough that we won’t ever see a GMO tea.”

Whether a simple tea without any add-in that could conceivably be GMO deserves non-GMO status or not, I applaud Choice as a pioneer organic tea brand, and I support the efforts of the Non-GMO Project to promote non-GMO foods. Many of the product types—breads, cereals, pastas, beans, tofu and more—the group has verified could indeed come in GMO form. And GMO products don’t need to be labeled in the U.S. If you can’t know what product is GMO, at least you can now know some that aren’t.

Case #2
A recent study surveyed 114 University of Michigan students, who assumed that organic cookies were lower in calories than conventional ones. The proof? Well, there is none. If only!

Where did these students get the idea that organic cookies were low-cal? No idea. Potential environmental and nutrition benefits are key factors influencing my organic purchases because, well, there’s at least some hope for them.

Consider these cases. Should we care what product labels mean or only what shoppers think they mean?

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