Making Sense of Food Labels
I attended a truly enriching event on Friday, September 19, 2014. Consumer Reports hosted "America's Most Wanted Labels," an all-day event at San Francisco's City Hall.
I took away several insights.
- When I'm at the grocery store scanning the stacks of egg cartons, if I want to purchase eggs that come from a chicken who had access to pasture (the outdoors), then I am looking for one label: Animal Welfare Approved. Check out this fantastic infographic below for that break down. I am incredibly irritated that "Free Range" is pretty much meaningless. Normally, I rely heavily on "Organic" for healthier options, but regarding meat and poultry, "Organic" falls short.
- Consumer perception around the label "Natural" is highly concerning. Consumer Reports shared the results of their Food Labels Survey and most consumers think the label "Natural" on meat and poultry means that no artificial growth hormones were used, no antibiotics or other drugs were used, and the animals' feed contained no GMOs or artificial ingredients or colors. For packaged and processed foods, most consumers think "Natural" means that no toxic pesticides, artificial ingredients or colors, or GMOs were used. None of these perceptions are true. While the label "USDA Organic" does live up to many of these beliefs, even the current definition of "Organic" has limitations.
- The information I found most encouraging regards consumer attitudes for supporting local farms, and fair wages and working conditions for farm workers. When asked if they look for locally grown or produced food when shopping, 66% of consumers answered "Yes." Even better, 92% of consumers answered that supporting local farmers was either "Very Important" or "Important." So we know that we create policy and vote with our dollars. Perhaps we just need to be more persistent in our search for these local products. And, apparently, we're willing to pay more to make sure farm workers earn a living wage and are treated fairly. When asked if they would pay more per pound for fruits and veggies, 79% of consumers answered "Yes." The range on how much more per pound people were willing to pay began at 10 cents and reached more than one dollar. I'm impressed!
So how do I negotiate this maze of misleading food labeling?
These labels are the eye-catching labels on products. I can still flip packages around and read the more comprehensive Nutrition Facts panel. If I can't pronounce an ingredient name, then there's a good chance that substance may not be good for me.
I also found a lovely free pdf resource: Food Labeling for Dummies: A definitive guide to common food label terms and claims from Animal Welfare Approved. They alphabetically list over 80 food labels with color-coded graphics identifying claims regarding animal welfare, the environment, the use of antibiotics, social responsibility, and more. Here's where I love, love, love my Premium Evernote account! I just click on my Evernote Web Clipper and I save the pdf into my Shopping Notebook. I download that pdf to my mobile device and I'm good to go, even if I'm shopping somewhere with no access to the Cloud.
Finally, I discovered this Eco-Labels app for iOS created by Consumer Reports. It costs $0.99, which I think is a fair price for easily accessible label information from a trusted independent nonprofit whose mission is to help consumers protect ourselves.
Did I learn anything else? Yes!
- I saw director Sanjay Rawal introduce the trailer to his documentary Food Chains. This film focuses on a group of tomato pickers in Southern Florida who are radically changing farm labor. In broader context, the film's website states the film "reveals the human cost in our food supply and the complicity of the supermarket industry." The film opens on 11.21.14, the same day The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 opens. I think Katniss would want me to see the film supporting farm workers.
- Will Harris from White Oak Pastures talked passionately about his family farm's journey to sustainability. The moderator of the panel pointed out the numerous sustainable labels this farm has and basically asked Will why he does so much paperwork. Will compared those sustainable labels to Boy Scout Merit Badges. If I'm ever in Georgia, I'm heading out to White Oak Pastures for a tour! Will invited everyone.
- I found numerous helpful links on the Take Part website when I added my name to the over 25,000 signatures on the petition to ban the label "Natural." As "Mad-Eye" Moody always shouts, "Constant vigilance!" If you want to sign the petition to the USDA and FDA, here's the link to Stop Confusing Consumers: Ban the 'Natural' Label.