What's in a food label? Sometimes a lot, sometimes not so much

What's in a food label? Sometimes a lot, sometimes not so much

The USDA Organic label continues to be deeply misunderstood and scrutinized—despite the fact that, unlike natural and many other popular food labels used today, organic actually means something and is backed by pretty stringent requirements. But it’s not just organic that’s in label trouble these days.

I recently found myself in Portland, Ore., explaining the meaning of the USDA Organic label to a highly educated, upper-middle-class 20-something who was certain the seal could be used on just about any product, regardless of how it was produced. I was surprised to find such a deeply ingrained misunderstanding of organic certification in such a progressive, food-loving town such as Portland.

I mean, Oregon is home to the long-standing and venerable organic certifier Oregon Tilth. And besides, Portland is the inspiration behind the hilarious and organic-obsessed TV show Portlandia, in which “deep green” consumers go to great lengths to determine just how organic and local the chicken on a restaurant menu really is.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The organic industry has faced its share of trouble educating shoppers on the value behind the organic label. This is why organic advocates are pushing for a coordinated, national advertising campaign that will educate Americans on organic in a big, compelling way.

But the need for education goes well beyond the organic seal. Increasingly, people seem to be filled with a growing mistrust of all food labels, as New Hope Natural Media learned earlier this year during its second wave of Future of Wellness in-home consumer interviews. “There are a lot of labels and terms that are very deceiving and really don’t mean anything,” one Colorado mom told us.

Fueling this perception, of course, have been the numerous examples of companies using overhyped label claims to mislead consumers. Remember the backlash and pursuant class-action lawsuits that followed Kellogg’s decision to slap a giant immunity-boosting claim on its Rice Krispies cereal boxes in the midst of the H1N1 flu pandemic?

Clearly, a big difference exists between a hyperbolic and unsubstantiated immunity banner and the regulated organic seal, but every time a shopper sees a company called out for illegal or unethical labeling, the end result can be the questioning of all labels.

Here’s where natural retailers come in. Your customers likely want to see organic, fair trade, non-GMO and, increasingly, local labels on your shelves, but they also expect you to help them decipher those product monikers—and ultimately move beyond just carrying products with the right kind of labels to providing tools for helping people achieve true health and wellness.

What labels do you find most valuable? And how is your store moving beyond the label? Share your stories with me at [email protected]

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