Food Labels Confuse Consumers

Consumers are confused about food labels. That’s the message from a survey of 3,337 urban consumers in 11 countries sponsored by the ENOUGH Movement, which is sharing the “Truth About Food,” a program to bring accurate, fact-based information to spark discussion and dispel misunderstanding.

The study found people around the globe care about what goes in their food and on their tables, but even the most diligent consumer admitted they don’t really know the meaning of many food labels, the differences in farming methods like organic and conventional and the environmental impact.

“The farm-to-table movement has revealed that we all want to know what’s in our food and where it comes from,” said registered dietitian Susan Finn, PhD, RD, FADA. “But it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to food labels, farming practices, and other food production topics. Distinguishing myth from reality can make a big difference in the choices families make about nutrition, household budgets and environmental impact.”

Among the survey’s key findings, two-thirds of respondents say buying “all natural” or organic foods is motivated by a perception that they are healthier and safer. Ninety-nine percent of organic buyers said they are confident in their understanding of the organic label. The data, however, shows a significant gap between their perceptions of what it actually means.

For instance, 82% of organic buyers say their motivation is because they believe organic foods are pesticide free. In fact, organic farmers may use a variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops manufactured from natural sources, including substances like boron, copper sulfate and pyrethrin1 similar to the synthetic versions used in modern farming. Additionally, research from Stanford University concluded there was no health or nutrition difference between conventional and organically produced food.

Global consumers were also confused about labels stating “no added hormones” or “no antibiotics.” More than 60 percent of consumers thought “no added hormones” meant there were no hormones in products with that label, while another 25 percent thought products with this label were higher quality. About one-third of consumers believed antibiotic free meant non-labeled products contained antibiotics. Inspection and residue testing ensure that foods do not contain harmful antibiotic residues.

Beyond the grocery store, the study also suggests consumers are confused about modern agriculture, farming, and food production. Consumers have a lot of questions about how food is raised and how farmers care for animals and our resources. More than half of survey respondents (52 percent) believe that the majority of farms are run by corporations.

In fact, in the United States, 97 percent of farms are family owned and 88 percent are small family farms. The percentage of family-owned farms globally is 90 percent.

“The survey results underscore just how critical it is for more people to understand what goes on behind the scenes with their food,” said Janice Wolfinger, agriculture educator and farmer. “As a farmer, animal health and well-being is a top priority and we do everything we can to ensure that our animals are healthy. And as a mother, I choose to purchase foods that were grown using conventional food methods for a variety of reasons, but most importantly because I know that they’re safe for my family and they’re a better fit for our budget.”

The “Truth About Food Survey” was conducted by Kynetec in the United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Peru. More information about the survey can be found here.