Label Overload

GMO-Free!  Natural!  Healthy! Organic!  

If only we just label it, then consumers can make informed choices about what they're buying. Wishful thinking, I've come to realize.

The politics around food labeling is rampant, with the FDA have just received public comments around how to define the ever amorphous "natural," with Vermont leading the charge on GMO labeling and just this week, the FDA acknowledging that they need to revisit their definition of "healthy."  Not to mention menu labeling, organic, gluten-free, the list goes on...

While I strongly believe in providing information to consumers - and remaining transparent - the list of unintended consequences from "label overload" is growing.  

But before we talk about that, let's recognize that some labeling - like calories on menus - is distinct from health or health-like claims.  It's information like calories and sodium on the menu - or providing an 'added sugars' line on the nutrition facts panel - that does help consumers make smart choices.  It's the rest - those that may signal health or in some cases, stigmatize what may be healthy products as not (anything containing GMO ingredients, for example) that can increasingly be used to both market products and simultaneously add to consumer confusion.  All under the auspices of increased transparency.

Take Organics:  organic Capri-Sun, organic fruit snacks, organic cookies...of course there is also organic milk, organic eggs, and so on.  But consumers may look to organic as a signal of 'health' and may inaccurately buy organic juice thinking that it's nutritious (when in fact it contains no less added sugar than it's conventional counterpart).

Take GMOs: GMO-free soup, GMO-free ice cream...and then there's a GMO apple available in the produce section.  Is the GMO-free soup healthy if it's full of sodium and other additives? How are consumers to know?  Are we unfairly preying on consumers willingness to believe all GMOs are bad and GMO free is good?  For a process that's been around for centuries.  Yes, consumers should know...but we don't consider that they might not know what to do with this information.

Take Healthy: Kind Bars just got the FDA's "OK" to use "healthy" on their products.  This much was clear - FDA's current definition of "healthy" that requires foods to be low in fat excludes foods with nuts, what we now know to be part of a healthy diet.  So the agency will take a deeper look at how they're defining healthy.  Then down the road companies can use this label for different - and probably a wider range - of products.  Is there a way for consumers to distinguish "healthy" from "wholesome" or even "good for you"?  

Clear definitions - like those for natural or healthy - that reflect current nutrition science is definitely a step in the right direction. But it's worth thinking about how we use them in practice.  With consumers wanting cleaner labels, fewer additives and a desire to make "smarter choices" we should continue to question whether we are giving the public the tools they need to make the best decisions for their health.