The Food Label Debate

April 5, 2018 08:00 AM
Food labels could spur unhealthy eating habits and distrust.

Failure to market food in an attractive yet honest way will create long-term problems for food companies and other industry stakeholders, says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters and a leading consultant for foodservice manufacturers and operators.

Webster shared research on the ways consumers respond to food labels during a session organized by Charleston|Orwig at the off-the-record Trust In Food™ Symposium. She was among more than 45 experts who spotlighted the disconnect between consumers, farmers and the food system. 

Trust In Food™ asked Webster to respond to several questions attendees raised at the Symposium with readers. Questions have been edited for grammar and clarity.

Trust in Food

What is your take on labeling claims and whether they create long-term trust among consumers?

MW: “Unfortunately, I think consumers are fairly skeptical about labeling claims because of the confusion about what they mean (this is particularly true with organic, natural, etc., which now seem more like marketing terms than legitimate claims), who is really benefiting and whether there is any oversight regarding their use.

“Allergen information is likely the only exception, as that is straightforward and directly relevant to those with allergies. Additionally, I think larger manufacturers face greater skepticism about a range of labeling claims than do smaller manufacturers, who are considered inherently more trustworthy by many consumers. While I think the claims can gain short-term awareness and buzz, I think most have minimal impact on long-term trust and loyalty for the larger brands.”

How can farmers help consumers understand practices as benefiting a higher purpose—or give them the “experience” they want?

MW: “That is the biggest challenge facing the industry given consumers’ general lack of knowledge and comfort with any type of scientific discussion. First, everything needs to be discussed in laymen’s terms as much as possible, but not to the degree that it seems the truth is being masked by dumbed down explanations.

“One thing I’ve discussed with family members who are farmers is that, at the most basic levels, farmers aren’t going to do anything to the land or their animals—which are their source of income—that will harm them. Beyond ethics and humane practices, abusing your assets leads to financial losses that will put their family at risk. Much of this discussion needs to be put into personal terms to humanize the process as much as possible.”

Has the move to natural, real food, functional foods, etc., had a positive impact on obesity or other health indicators?

MW: “The answer is categorically no, or we wouldn’t still be talking about the obesity issue. Unfortunately, that issue is never broken down into more specific terms that should be addressed on a local and state level, as that discussion will start to push against other sensitive topics.

“I think the reality is that these issues have actually exacerbated the already large nutrition and health gap between higher-income and lower-
income consumers. All of these terms and issues typically come with higher price tags that are just outside the reach of many Americans who likely are suffering from higher rates of obesity and health issues.

“Additionally, the trendiness of some of these functional issues is likely going to lead to other health issues, such as eating too much protein for a consumer’s activity level, drinking too much culinary charcoal or other specialty ingredients, etc.”

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