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Improving Food Labels for Customer Clarification

Labeling regulations in the food industry causing consumer confusion.

Flexible Food Packaging Regulations Lead to Shopper Confusion Not everyone takes the time to read the packaging of an item before buying it. However, even those who do may be surprised to learn that the labels indicating a food is healthy may actually mean the complete opposite. In an article for Next Avenue, Rashelle Brown recently revealed that, according to research conducted last year by the Cornell Food and Brand Labs, eating items that they perceived as healthy sometimes caused consumers to gain weight. The study attributed this to people feeling like it was okay to eat more of something if it was "good" for them, as well believing it took more of the food to satisfy them.

It seems as if a new issue arises every day pertaining to the labeling and packaging of food and beverage products. Manufacturers have faced a rapidly increasing demand to employ more transparent practices and provide consumers with nutrition facts and labels that are easy to understand. Much of this issue has been fueled by information that some feel is easy to misinterpret.

How Labels Can Be Misleading Many people have argued that the existing regulations and guidelines set forth by the United States Food and Drug Administration allow companies to deceive customers by manipulating certain details on the packaging of goods. For example, brands are able to make a food seem healthier by listing a relatively small serving size, meaning an unrealistic proportion based on actual consumer eating habits, thereby decreasing the nutritional value numbers listed on the label. Shoppers will sometimes glance at this information on a product, see that it isn't high in sugar or carbohydrates and decide to buy it.

Another food label trend that has faced growing scrutiny is the use of terms such as "all natural," "grass-fed" and "organic." As Brown pointed out, it is important that shoppers keep in mind businesses use labeling as a strategic marketing tool and will therefore purposely use phrasing that put a healthy or eco-friendly spin on packaging. As people become more health-conscious, companies know that to appeal to them they must highlight the nutritional benefits of a product.

However, according to the Courier-Post, research studies have shown that, when it comes to the amount of minerals and vitamins present in food, organic products do not provide any significant advantage. Charlotte Markey, a professor at Rutgers-Camden, told the news source that the organic label does not have to do so much with nutrients as it does with chemical and pesticide exposure, or lack thereof.

Understanding Food Regulations The Courier-Post highlighted the fact that a lack of clear definitions can also perpetuate consumer confusion. Qian Jia, a coordinator of the Rowan nutrition program, told the source that the FDA does not officially define the meaning of "natural," but, rather, loosely applies it to products that don't have any artificial coloring, flavoring or synthetic additives. Furthermore, there is a regulatory discrepancy because, although it wouldn't be unheard of for consumers to use words like "organic" and "natural" interchangeably, those terms adhere to entirely different guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FDA, respectively.

The FDA recently proposed a much-needed revision of nutritional label practices to better reflect the scientific findings of health and nutrition experts. These adjustments, such as a more predominantly displayed calorie count and realistic serving size, could help Americans make smarter, healthier choices and reduce the growing obesity epidemic.

Without enforcing a more uniform and standardized labeling system, legislative bodies will be unable to adequately control how food companies use certain terms, making it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions. It is important for shoppers to understand the meaning of certain words on products, as well as the regulation policies used to govern such labels.