Over the last few decades, researchers have immersed themselves in studying the impact of food labels. Food scientists, psychologist, and agriculture experts conducting research at universities have recognized for years the importance of food label information and its impact on purchasing behavior and healthy living.
Take an older study as an example. Decades ago Julie Caswell and Daniel Padberg, researchers at the University of Massachusetts and Texas A&M published an article that called for clearer food labeling.
They argued that from a variety of perspective, food labels were a primary end-point piece of information in the healthy food shopping puzzle—the one place that people know they can turn to get good information about what they are putting into their body.
The problem? Food marketers know how to use food labels to influence buying behaviors. They argued that regulators needed to revise food labeling practices, regulating them to account for both purchaser behavior and the marketing strategies of the food companies.
So, how far have we come in the last few years? How has food labeling changed?
Consider a recent study conducted in Greece—one that argues that “nutrition knowledge has a strong effect on general label use, degree of use, and on use of nutrient content concerning fat, ingredients, and vitamins.” What does that mean? To these researchers it means that label use is directly tied to how much nutrition knowledge you have.
Food marketers know this. They know that not everyone is a nutrition expert. Despite the regulations to the food labeling industry we’ve seen in the last decade—recommendations spurred on by studied like the one we referenced at the beginning of this article—things don’t appear to be that much better.
Check out these 4 examples of food labels that don’t necessarily mean what you think they do:
1. “Made with…”
What marketers want you to think: That “Made with” means “Good Source Of”
What it actually means: There is at least a tiny fraction of what they say it’s made with in there.
2. “Natural” or “All Natural”
What marketers want you to think: It’s organic or unprocessed.
What it actually means: It could mean what it says it does. Most of the time, however, it means that it doesn’t contain any added color, artificial flavoring, or synthetic additives.
3. “Light” or “Lightly Sweetened”
What marketers want you to think: There isn’t a lot of sugar.
What it actually means: The product contains a lot of artificial sweeteners.
4. “Low” or “Reduced”
What marketers want you to think: Less calories, less fat, or a reduced amount of whatever ingredient they mention. They want you to think that reduced means healthy.
What it actually means: It only has less than the original version. That doesn’t make it healthy.
Repeat This Over and Over
For the sake of brevity, we don’t need to cover all the examples. You can do this exercise over and over. Just check out what companies are putting on their labels. Usually, the key words that get you to buy are right on the front. You’ll see “High In Fiber” or “Light” or “Low in Fat.” The FDA does regulate some of these terms. For the most part, however, they are loosely defined.
The words on food mean nothing. You need to look at the label. Remember what researchers say about that—the label is only as good as your ability to interpret it.
What’s your best option? Do your research. Understand what food labels mean. You’re already on your way to better food buying decisions right now.