What’s in a Label and How Does it Affect What we Buy and Eat?

Organic. Sustainable. Healthy. Local. Free of Whatever You Aren’t Eating. All of these are labels we are becoming more and more accustomed to seeing in our grocery stores and on restaurant menus. But, what do they really mean? How can food companies be honest with customers while also taking advantage of marketing opportunities to reach those customers?

Because, let’s face it -- customers want, or think they want, each of these things to be healthy, support our world and feed their families in the best way possible. Yet, research shows they don’t always understand what each means. And, with today’s consumers relying on their friends and favorite influencers for advice and input on health trends, it’s even more challenging for companies to explain the “facts.”

In the U.S., nutrition labeling is somewhat voluntary but becoming more important as consumers demand more information. It’s also governed by three separate agencies so can get a little complicated and lead to confusion. The Department of Agriculture, Food & Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission all have different areas of responsibility.

What’s in a Label?


Organic food has been produced through approved methods that are verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Becoming certified as an organic product or operation requires an extensive and costly process as prescribed by the USDA.


Natural foods are processed in a way that doesn’t dramatically alter the product itself. Each product is supposed to also include a label that describes why it’s natural. Examples include “no artificial ingredients” or “minimally processed.”


There is currently no official definition of sustainable foods so companies are relatively free to label foods as such. Generally speaking, sustainable foods are healthy and produced in a way that’s both ecological and economically fair. They’re raised in a way that doesn’t hurt the land or planet, but that’s obviously open to a wide range of interpretation and discussion.


We’re all looking for foods that are local and find them regularly on products throughout the food chain. Yet, we’ve heard programs that define local as a 300-mile radius. This means that local tomato you bought at your Seattle market could be from as far away as Boise, Idaho or Medford, Oregon.


One of the most confusing labels, and the one consumers often perceive in a promising way, healthy food labels can mean a myriad of things. The FDA has been trying to redefine how the term can be used on food labels, but it’s a complicated process and something each industry wants to make sure protects them. Current FDA regulations state simply that healthy foods “are not low in total fat, but have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats; or contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) of potassium or vitamin D.”

Of course, there are many other labels and claims made on products that would could address here, but these are the major ones which affect most companies and consumers.

What Does This All Mean to Companies?

For food companies, the inconsistencies around labels and messages only adds to the confusion for customers. That’s why they’re looking for information they believe to be the truth which is also an opportunity for companies to make sure they’re a trusted source of good information.

Today’s companies need to be vigilant about growing and maintaining the trust of customers and stakeholders. Companies need to understand the needs and desires of their target audience and make sure products are designed to be attractive to them, but not at the expense of changing the truthfulness of the labeling.

Trusted, diverse strategic communications programs are more important than ever before because customers have so many places they can get information to make purchase decisions. Educated and sincere customer service is also critical because once someone has a bad experience of any kind, they’ll make sure to spread the word and companies need to make sure they’re prepared to address the problem, as well as own the solution.


USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service

Food and Drug Administration Food Labeling & Nutrition

FDA Food Labeling Guide

National Agricultural Law Center

This post first appeared on food-pr.com

The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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