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Behind the label: A consumer’s perspective

woman in grocery story
CHECK THE LABEL: Assata Gilmore checks the label on a food item. Even though she reads labels, she’s not always sure what they mean.
Do consumers really understand what’s on food labels?

By Rebecca Frazier

You’re at the grocery store staring at the cooler full of milk. There are red caps, blue caps, cardboard cartons and too many brands to count. How do you decide what milk to buy?

Maybe you pick a gallon of 2% milk because that’s what you’ve always bought, or maybe you grab a carton of organic milk because you heard it’s healthier for you. You finally settle on milk and walk away to grab a loaf of bread, but find yourself in the same situation — what loaf do you buy? There are so many to choose from.

Many of today’s consumers face this challenge when grocery shopping. Shoppers typically walk into the grocery store with a list of food items they want to purchase. However, knowing what they want and actually choosing which foods to buy are very different. So they base their purchasing decisions on how their food is labeled and what they perceive those labels to mean.

Among U.S. adults, 82% say they’re affected a great deal by labels when purchasing food products, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center. This is a significant portion of consumers basing their decisions on food labels. Consumers use these labels to determine the characteristics they want in products and change their purchasing decisions based on the information found on packages.

Buying factors
“Anything from brand names to labels like ‘non-GMO’ and ‘organic’ can influence the products a consumer buys,” says Jayson Lusk, department head of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “People often interpret labels for safety and nutrition purposes.”

Lusk, a distinguished professor at Purdue, has done extensive research on consumers and how labels influence their purchasing decisions. He notes that throughout much of his research, he has found that what consumers perceive a label to mean and what it really means are often drastically different.

“You can’t tell much about food just by looking at it,” Lusk says. “You can’t even tell some of the characteristics of a product even after consuming it. Consumers need labels to help them determine the characteristics they want in a product.”

Megan Smith, a consumer in North Carolina who typically shops at Food Lion near her home, notes that while labels don’t always influence what she purchases, she isn’t entirely sure what all the labels mean.

“Food labels do confuse me — I’ve heard that ‘hormone free’ means no hormones or vaccines are given to the animals, but then I’ve also heard that a lot of food labels are incorrect,” Smith says. “So, you can never be truly sure, but I hope that’s just a rumor.”

Smith is a mom and sees importance in buying food that is healthy and safe for her family. When shopping, she considers factors such as grams of sodium and sugar, organic, grass-fed and free-range.

The various labels that Smith looks for are just a small subset of the multitude of food labels. Information presented on foods varies, and the labels don’t always look the same. This can be confusing to consumers or cause them to make decisions based on emotion rather than factual information. Consumers aren’t always the ones to blame for the misunderstanding, though, according to Lusk.

“People infer things based on labels,” Lusk says. “They often believe things about labels that are uninformative. Take ‘all natural’ for example — it has no meaning or standard, but there is no clear explanation of its meaning for consumers.”

Brand trust
Trust is a huge factor in building confidence among consumers. Lusk points out that decline in consumer trust probably explains some of the shift in changing food labels. Consumer trust has fallen over time and one question remains: How does the industry regain that trust?

Purdue University student Assata Gilmore typically buys products from brands she knows and trusts. She looks to brand labels to buy reliable, safe and quality foods. When she walks into the grocery store, Gilmore doesn’t want to worry about deciphering what food labels mean.

“I buy foods that look good, and I’m trusting the industry to provide me with safe food,” she says. “I hope that what they label foods with is accurate.”

Family doctors and family members are the most trusted sources about food-related issues, while state and governmental agencies are the first to be held accountable to ensure safe food and good nutrition, according to a report from the Center for Food Integrity, an organization dedicated to providing consumers with information to make informed food choices. Interestingly, food companies are the least trusted source but one of the first to be held accountable. The disconnect between whom consumers trust and whom they hold responsible may cause consumers to take action — whether it’s advocating for new policies and regulations or rejecting products and information.

“Consumers want to trust a product, so they’ll trust people they have shared values with,” Lusk says. “If you have the same priority that they do, there’s a higher chance you’ll influence them.”

Food safety 
Food safety and health remain two of the most important factors when consumers purchase foods. Consumer analysis of these factors includes information on product labels ranging from preservatives to allergens and whether ingredients were derived from genetically engineered seed. They also expect this information to be presented in a way that is easy to understand.

Many consumers removed from the food and agriculture industry or unaware of what food labels mean may find the various labels confusing or conflicting. As Smith notes, products labeled “hormone free” mean various things to different consumers. One of the key ways to reach consumers is increasing transparency around the meanings of labels.

“I think the industry should increase consumer awareness,” says Michael Kay, a consumer who grows much of his own food and shops locally. “It would benefit both parties. This could be as simple as having pamphlets at the checkout line, sending flyers in the mail or a short commercial on TV.”

Although Kay says he doesn’t get confused with labeling, he notices that others often do. Kay notes that he has an advantage over the everyday consumer after being involved in the agriculture industry. He points out that something as simple as orange juice can confuse consumers. With options ranging from filtered water to added sugars or pure orange juice, this can trick the mind of consumers.

“There isn’t a silver bullet to fix these issues,” Lusk says. “There is a lot of misinformation about labels, but the truth is that people can’t know everything about everything. We have to be the ones to educate consumers.”

Frazier is a senior in Purdue University ag communication. She writes from West Lafayette, Ind.

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