DO YOU REALLY UNDERSTAND FOOD LABELS!?

You’re having a cookout, and you need some pork chops to throw on the grill.  Upon arriving at the meat counter in the local grocery store, you’re instantly bombarded with several choices and a decision to make.  Natural? Organic? Free range? No hormone, no pesticide, grass-fed… the list goes on. 

As consumers, many of us are concerned about making healthy choices.  Many parents are concerned about making the best decision for their children.  Amongst the long list of options, terminology and claims, it can be difficult to understand and determine what the best choice is.  It is important to be informed and understand what the food you’re eating really is.

Food labels make many claims and most consumers don’t completely understand them.  Consumers seem to have an idea in their head about what they think a certain term means and they make their purchases based on this image.  However, there are many marketing techniques to labeling that can sway a consumer one direction or another.

A lot of different production claims can be made about a product.  These claims are what drive many consumers to purchase a certain product.  However, many people misunderstand terminology on labels.  For example, often people associate the word “natural” with how the animal was raised.  Perhaps, they envision the animal in an outdoor setting with lots of good food and good treatment.  In reality, the word refers only to the processing of the product.  It means simple that no additives or preservatives supplemented the goods, and it was minimally processed.

Many consumers are also confused by the word “organic.”  According to the USDA, organic means, “Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”  Most people believe that organic food is free of all pesticides and fertilizers.  This is not the case.  Organic producers can still use pesticides and fertilizers made with natural ingredients.

Have you ever read a label that claims, “No hormones in this chicken?” Actually, there aren’t hormones in any chicken.  Growth in birds raised for meat is due to genetics and good nutrition.  There are many other myths and claims that confuse consumers and give them a warped view of the food they’re buying.

The media plays a significant role in how food labels are perceived.  Research shows that 73% of consumers say they get their information about food safety practices from some form of the media.  Activist groups, spokespeople from organizations and businesses and even consumers use the media to distribute information about food.

These groups use a technique called framing, meaning they present their issues in a way that influences the way the audience will interpret issues.  For example, organic foods are often shown as more ethical.  Media uses phrases like “environmentally friendly” and “ethical principals” to instill a sort of guilt in consumers that don’t buy organic food.  Health, production practices, and industrialization are other topics used in product framing.

Don’t be confused, and don’t allow yourself to be influenced by marketing schemes and claims that you don’t understand.  I leave you with these words from Benjamin Franklin, “The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.”

Danielle Robinson
University of Illinois student

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